London Jazz Festival Review (12) SNJO at Arts Depot Finchley

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra
(The Arts Depot, Finchley, part of the London Jazz Festival, November 14th 2010, review by Frank Griffith, photo credit: Roger Thomas)

This was a sensational presentation of classic material couched in new clothes for modern big band. The London Jazz Festival event was led by world class tenor saxophoinist, Tommy Smith, and the first half featured his reworking of George Gerswhin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” which he warned us could run fifty minutes or even longer, (depending on solos,etc). Needless to say it ran well over an hour but was none the worse for that. Filled with a variety of tempo changes, rhythmic grooves and solo sections this listener was continually engaged throughout.

As one might expect, the piano playing of Brian Kellock was featured widely, highlighting many of his unlimited stylistic turns.These included early 20th century stride piano, light fingered 1930s Basie jump, 1960s modal layerings and Cecil Taylor-like two fisted bashings. Particularly notable too were his many short interludes quoting and reharmonsing key Gershwin themes in his own tempo.

The leader’s spellbinding tenor sax was featured widely too, clearly leading the way for solo honours amongst the troops. His brilliant technical command of the horn, coupled with the sheer gravitas-grabbing intensity that he unleashes had a formidable effect to say the least.

Another remarkable effect of this piece was his ability to mix and balance the ensemble work with improvisation without compromising the listener’s engagement. This was accomplished with great elan resulting in rendering such a heroic and lengthy work so palatable.

The SNJO is peppered with a bevy of fine soloists including trombonists, Chris Gleave and Phil O’Malley, both featured plentifully. Greave’s guttural plunger mutings were welcome as were the Carl Fontana influenced notey melodicisms of Mr O’Malley. The lead playing and sparkling solo work of tumpeter, Ryan Quigley was also highlighted by a high note match duet with fellow screamster, Cameron Jay, which occured well into the Rhapsody. A display of Scottish “High-Laddism” for certain.

Young firebrand alto saxophonist, Paul Towndrow rose to his numerous solo outings with a display of angular technical passages and the use of altissimo at the occasional expense of passion and a fuller, broader expression of sound. Also, the fine drums and bass team of Alyn Cosker and Calum Gourlay kept matters ensemble well in hand. A remarkable solo by Calum showcasing his Paul Chambers-like ideas was faultless and extremely musical and tasty.

The second half was entirely devoted to the Woody Herman library, mostly from the 1940s period. Tommy’s Getzian lyricism on “Early Autumn” as well as his nod to Illinois Jacquet type “Texas tenor” stomping on Apple Honey was impressive as was the clarinet work of lead altoist, Martin Kershaw.

My only reservation was the absence of a printed programme, which left the audience reliant on the descriptions and explanations given from the stage. Tommy Smith acquitted himself completely admirably, but it did take time away from the music. And as many jazz audiences (especially at festivals) are new to the music the more information that you can provide “while you have em, ” and let them take away, the better the chances of getting them back. Jazz, like so many other forms of pop music is often viewed as a “let the music speak for itself. ” This type of arguement is idiotic and sensess. Whether the programme is provided by the promoter, venue or artist is not the point- just provide the damn thing.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s residency at the London Jazz Festival has been supported by Creative Scotland

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