SNJO In an Ellington Mood


The music of Duke Ellington and his co-writer Billy Strayhorn has become one of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra's specialisms.


Under its founder and musical director, Tommy Smith, the orchestra presented its first Ellington programme in 1997, two years after its formation. Then, in 2013, the album In the Spirit of Duke followed. Recorded on tour the previous year, this helped to further establish the SNJO’s credentials internationally with glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. 


“We wanted to capture the music in concert because it always comes to life onstage in the white heat of spontaneity and with the audience making their presence felt,” says Smith. “I think the band’s exuberance particularly comes across on those recordings.”


Smith was given some insight into life with the Ellington band in 1999 when he was invited to tour with the Ellington Legacy Orchestra in Switzerland and given the chair once occupied by one of the great Ellingtonians, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. 


The Ellington Legacy Orchestra included trombonists Brit Woodman and Buster Cooper, bassist Aaron Bell and trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall, who had all spent time touring with Ellington, and Smith enjoyed listening to their reminiscences. 


“It was also a joy to hear them playing their hearts out every night and I tried my best to swing as hard as I could for as long as I could, even if in such illustrious company you feel overwhelmed but elated simultaneously,” Smith adds. 


As a result of playing with musicians with a direct connection to the Ellington legacy and following many hours spent studying Ellington and Strayhorn’s methods, Smith has sought to give audiences as close to the true Ellington experience as possible. Until now this has been solely instrumental in content. 


However, in a break from the orchestra’s previous Ellington concerts, this latest celebration of Ellington’s genius will see the orchestra joined for part of each concert by the exceptional young vocalist Lucy-Anne Daniels. 


Still in her early twenties, Leeds-born Lucy-Anne Daniels has already appeared at prestigious jazz venues including Ronnie Scott’s and Dizzy’s Jazz Club in New York. She has also sung with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, including a celebration of the life and music of Amy Winehouse, and her background in gospel music is a particularly apt asset for singing Ellington's songs.


“Duke Ellington has been a key figure in jazz for almost a hundred years,” says Smith. “His music has been an inspiration across numerous eras, from providing the rhythm for dancers in the 1920s and popularising jazz during the swing era to playing with the then younger generation including Charles Mingus and John Coltrane in the 1960s and beyond. He continues to challenge and reward the young musicians who are emerging today.”  


 As with previous concerts of Ellington’s music, the SNJO will again apply meticulous attention to period detail. This includes recreating the Ellington Orchestra stage set-up, embracing their sartorial elegance, using specially sourced period brass mutes and playing musical scores specially transcribed from Ellington concerts.


“We want to involve people in as close as possible to a genuine Ellington performance,” says Smith. “There are obvious differences in personnel, of course, but the intention is to make the music come alive similar to the way it blossomed whenever the Duke Ellington Orchestra rolled into town.”

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