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SNJO - delivering the goods to the home of Scottish jazz

It’s entirely appropriate that the Queen’s Hall should house the stage on which the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra has performed more often than any other. After the hall opened for business in 1981 jazz soon became a central plank of its regular programming and within a few years a great many of the major names in jazz – and not a few who would go on to collaborate with the SNJO – had appeared in the venue.

Guitarist John Scofield, who celebrated his work with Miles Davis with the orchestra in 2010; trumpeter Randy Brecker, whose revisiting of his brother, Michael’s music with the SNJO was such an emotionally powerful success in 2012; bassist Arild Andersen, whose presence as featured soloist in the SNJO’s celebration of the ECM Records repertoire led to the orchestra recording for this most prestigious of European jazz labels in 2010; and the orchestra’s most recent guest, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who appeared as a very young man with his trumpeter brother, Wynton - all had graced the Queen’s Hall at least once in the venue’s first decade.

During that time also, a young divinity student on secondment to Edinburgh University for a year became a regular attender at the Friday night concerts that brought these stars to Clerk Street, and Kurt Elling – for it was he – expressed a complete lack of surprise that one of the musicians he caught back then, Tommy Smith, should be directing a world class jazz orchestra in Scotland when he sang in his inimitable style with the SNJO in February 2011.

So, in essence, we have the flagship venue of the Scottish jazz scene over the past thirty years housing frequent performances by that scene’s flagship band.

Few predicted that Tommy Smith, whom Kurt Elling describes as “a prince” for his achievements before forming the SNJO and his subsequent successes with the orchestra, would achieve quite such high standards of performance when the SNJO made its debut in 1995. It was undeniably a good band but it’s taken a lot of hard work and years of perseverance to bring the orchestra to the point where one of the jazz world’s leading musicians, the aforementioned Randy Brecker would volunteer the following testament:

“The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is, simply put, among the very best jazz orchestras on the planet. It’s full of great soloists, the section work is sheer perfection, and the arrangements and compositions are unforgettable, many having been penned by the SNJO's 'star' musical director and saxophonist in residence: the amazing Tommy Smith! My brief tour with the SNJO was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life.”

The status that the SNJO enjoys today was built on performances of big band music by masters such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie and visits to the classic arrangements that Gil Evans, coincidentally another jazz great who appeared on the Queen’s Hall stage in that first decade, wrote for Miles Davis. With these often familiar pieces, Smith instilled the discipline that he knew was required while encouraging the musicians under his imaginary baton, who were often brought in on the basis that if they were good enough they were old enough, to express themselves. It was Evans’ Miles Ahead, performed with Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen in 2000, that constituted the SNJO’s first album in 2002.

 

Something happened, though, in the year between the concerts with Jensen and the album’s release that saw the orchestra apparently move up several gears. First, Smith’s Beauty and the Beast suite, written for its featured soloist, Dave Liebman, and premiered at Glasgow Jazz Festival that summer, produced a concert that was frankly hair-raising. Then, as winter arrived, an exhilaratingly vivid, joyous, blood and guts celebration of Charles Mingus’s bluesy, gospel-soaked music suggested that this orchestra could mould itself into any shape Smith desired, whether that be to play the music of Stan Kenton or Weather Report or to honour the Shinto gods (in a world-first meeting of jazz orchestra and Taiko drum troupe) or to engage with the complex rhythmical language of South America.

Venezuelan pianist Leo Blanco, whose The End of Amazonia formed part of the SNJO’s South American adventure in 2008, marvelled at the way these Scottish musicians could interpret his music so naturally when he received a recording of his composition, although that same year, with the arrival of the orchestra’s second album, Rhapsody in Blue Live, which was recorded at the Queen’s Hall and which highlighted Smith’s fiercely imaginative re-composition of a standard work, many other listeners well beyond Scotland received confirmation of just how adaptable and exuberant this orchestra can be.

With a series of hugely well received appearances at London Jazz Festival, one of the world’s major jazz events, and a repeat triumph of their Scottish concerts with Kurt Elling at European jazz’s great taste-making celebration, Jazz sous les pommiers in Coutances, Normandy as well as a superlatives-strewn tour of America and Canada this summer, the SNJO’s audience at home now knows it was right to esteem the orchestra as world class.

Even Smith, who will readily tell you that he’s never happy with the SNJO’s performances, must feel a semblance of satisfaction with the orchestra’s achievements in recent times, which include rave reviews internationally, both for the authenticity the orchestra brought to Duke Ellington’s music on the album In the Spirit of Duke and for the quality of musicianship on Celebration, the ECM recording with Arild Andersen. There have also been outstanding performances of the familiar, in Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool with Sardinian trumpet master Paolo Fresu, as well as a timely reprise of the long neglected Culloden Suite by Smith’s great hero, fellow Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins.

Rather than looking back, Smith may well prefer to look forward to – and prepare for, with typical assiduousness – the orchestra’s projects scheduled for early 2014, which sees the SNJO return to the Queen’s Hall to renew their acquaintance with vocalist par excellence Kurt Elling for a new work, Synopticon, in February. They will also celebrate the music of John Coltrane with revered British saxophonist Courtney Pine in March and visit classic piano works, Mozart’s 9th Piano Concert and Smith’s revision of Rhapsody in Blue, with the Japanese piano virtuoso Makoto Ozone in April.

In the meantime, Dave Liebman, whose superb soprano saxophone playing and masterly compositions gave audiences such a thrilling experience when he guested with the SNJO in June this year, is happy to provide the ultimate endorsement.

“I had a wonderful time with SNJO during my recent stay,” says Liebman. “The band was professional and very flexible stylistically which my music demands. As people, the feeling of hospitality and warmth was palpable. I can’t say enough about their esteemed leader and from what I can see the main voice for jazz in your country, Tommy Smith. Besides being one of the top players and composers in the world (that’s right--WORLD!!), his leadership of the big band is unparalleled. I have been around some powerful bandleaders in my time (Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Chick Corea), and I can tell you that Tommy ranks up there with the best as a leader/conductor as well as a player. I look forward to performing with the group in the future.”

From The Queen's Hall newsletter, Autumn 2013.

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