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REVIEW: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – The Count & The Duke at Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Photo Credit: Patrick Hadfield
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – The Count & The Duke
(Usher Hall, Edinburgh. 6 December 2018. Review by Patrick Hadfield)

The programme promised a big evening of music: Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige followed by Count Basie’s The Atomic Mr Basie. The SNJO delivered, and then some.

Black, Brown & Beige filled most of the first half. Ellington’s first masterwork was premiered in 1943 at Carnegie Hall. It didn’t go down well: it was panned by the critics and dropped from the repertoire after three performances. It wasn’t recorded in full at the time, although excerpts were issued in 1944 and Ellington reworked the first movement, with added words (sung powerfully by Mahalia Jackson), which was issued as Black, Brown & Beige in 1958. Segments subsequently found their way into Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts.

It was the 1943 original version that the SNJO played. Rarely heard, it must have been quite a coup simply to get the charts. As with the Carnegie Hall premiere, they started with Black and Tan Fantasy, not part of Black, Brown & Beige. Brian Kellock took to the stage first, sitting at the piano and flexing his fingers over the keys, improvising until he settled into the tune, as he was joined by the rhythm section of Calum Gourlay on bass, Kevin Mackenzie on guitar and Alyn Cosker, drums. Then, starting with the reeds, the different sections of the orchestra took to the stage, playing the theme, until the full 18-piece band got up a full head of steam, setting the tone for the evening.

Tommy Smith, the band’s director, then introduced Black, Brown & Beige and its three movements, setting the context and explaining some of its history, and reading Ellington’s description of what he was trying to achieve – a depiction of the life of African-Americans, the suffering wrought by slavery, the solace of faith.

From the thunderous drum beats at the opening of Work Song and the fanfare of horns blasting out the main riff, it was clear the band had nailed it. Work Song was full of passion and power, though not without nuance. Come Sunday, the second segment of Black, is slower, and was played with depth and subtlety, without the vocals Ellington added to subsequent versions.

Anoushka Nanguy and Calum Gourlay
Photo credit: Patrick Hadfield
The second movement, Brown, featured Anoushka Nanguy on vocals for its third section, Blues Theme Mauve. Her full voice conveyed the depth of emotion in Ellington’s lyrics (“the blues ain’t nothin’ but a cold grey day…”). The last movement, Beige, was more upbeat and lively, representing life in Harlem and, with Sugar Hill Penthouse, Ellington’s own neighbourhood, before the Finale repeated themes from the whole piece.

The SNJO were superb. It would be easy for Black, Brown & Beige to have come across as a museum piece – an interesting, rare curio. The whole orchestra brought it to life. It was a tour de force, full of energy in both the ensemble sections and the solos.

Had Black, Brown & Beige been the only music played, it would have been an excellent evening: the audience wouldn’t have felt short-changed. But instead of heading out into the night, we were treated to the second half, The Atomic Mr Basie in full. Unlike the original Black, Brown & Beige, The Atomic Mr Basie is much more familiar, a masterpiece of lively swing from 1958, with tunes and arrangements by Neal Hefti.

As befits a performance of an album which famously features the mushroom cloud on its cover, the SNJO were explosive, blasting off with Basie and Hefti’s Kid from Red Bank. After the tightly orchestrated Ellington, it seemed like the orchestra was given more freedom by Basie, and they made the most of it. They roared.

Driven by the tight rhythm section – not least Kevin Mackenzie on guitar, whose choppy chords laid the foundations for the tunes just as Freddie Green did for Basie – the orchestra proved they can swing like the best. Brian Kellock, sitting in the Count’s chair, was suitably understated, just nudging the tune here and there.

They played the album through to its final tune, Lil’ Darlin’, without introducing the tracks. As each came along, it was like being greeted by an old friend: you could feel the audience smiling as they recognised each theme.

The soloists were excellent, particularly Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow on alto, and the fiery trumpet of Tom McNiven; Tommy Smith himself took some bold, muscular choruses. But more than that, it was the SNJO as an ensemble that shone.

It was a tremendous evening during which the SNJO brought two more pieces to their ever-growing repertoire. As they left, the audience were bubbling with enthusiasm. I’m still buzzing!

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

Reeds: Martin Kershaw, Paul Towndrow, Tommy Smith, Konrad Wiszniewski, Bill Fleming
Trumpets: Jim Davison, Sean Gibbs, Tom MacNiven, Lorne Cowieson
Trombones: Chris Greive, Liam Shortall, Kieran McLeod, Michael Owers
Piano: Brian Kellock
Drums: Alyn Cosker
Bass: Calum Gourlay
Guitar: Kevin Mackenzie
Guest vocalist: Anoushka Nanguy

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