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Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Niall Greig Fulton – “Planet Wave” in Edinburgh

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with Niall Greig Fulton – Planet Wave (Queens Hall Edinburgh, 21 February 2020. Review by Mark McKergow) The SNJO re-stretched their musical boundaries with this emphatic performance of Edwin Morgan’s Planet Wave poetry suite and Tommy Smith’s complementary compositions. The music and words brought to life an epoch-leaping look at our history as a planet and a species, with marvellous readings from Niall Greig Fulton.

Planet Wave. Photo credit: Derek Clark

Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) was one of the foremost figures in Scottish literature in the 20th century, and was declared Scotland’s first ‘Makar’ (Poet Laureate) in 2004. SNJO leader Tommy Smith first met Morgan in 1996. They collaborated on a number of ideas, Morgan writing a total of 55 poems, with the Planet Wave project growing to epic proportions with 20 poems in all set to music. The first ten were included in Part One, premiered at the 1997 Cheltenham Jazz Festival and recorded by the BBC, with Morgan himself reading. Now in Morgan’s centenary year the SNJO have wisely chosen to revisit the material with Glasgow-born actor Niall Greig Fulton performing the verses – and what a performance! The stage set-up showed immediately that this isn’t quite a ‘normal’ SNJO evening. The musicians, clad in black, sit in a horseshoe facing each other. The performance has a strong ‘contemporary music’ feel with strong writing, cross-rhythms, complex and fluid inter-weavings with a great deal of subtle cuing and eye contact required. From the outset, with the Universe (and Morgan’s narrator figure) apparently coming into being through the bell of Michael Owers’ bass trombone, the arc of the evening starts with fiery and explosive brass and rippling accompaniments. Fulton’s vocal delivery was superb, conveying both majesty and a side-wink of irony and cheeky glance.

SNJO with Tommy Smith (left). Photo credit: Derek Clark

The ten movements flowed seamlessly together (no interval in this 90+ minute performance). Pete Johnstone featured strongly on piano and synth and retained his composure despite grappling with eight-feet-wide musical scores. Tommy Smith soloed on The Early Earth with his tenor saxophone rich in polyphonics and harmonics, a kind of primeval proto-jazz. The sound of flutes played a strong role, with SNJO’s regular flautist Yvonne Robertson being joined by Smith and alto saxophonist Paul Towndrow tenor saxist Konrad Wiszniewski joining on soprano sax from time to time. The End of the Dinosaurs saw a fine flugelhorn solo from James Copus. Humanity appeared for the first time In The Cave, where Fulton’s narrator seemed to bump into a gallous Glaswegian fresh from a successful mammoth hunt. Paul Towndrow soloed over an ambitious 56-beat sequence of shifting emphasis (nothing as simple as bars here). We heard strong programmatic elements in Tommy Smith’s writing, with The Great Flood lashing down and rippling away, and a grand fanfare greeting the construction of The Great Pyramid, giving way to a super bass flute solo by Yvonne Robertson. The words to On The Volga, painting a picture of a human sacrifice, were spine-tingling. This suite ends in the 16th century with Magellan circumnavigating the globe (joined by Liam Shortall and his trombone) and Copernicus revealing the Sun as the centre of planetary movement. This last movement finally shouts into something like swing, with James Copus and Tommy Smith duelling hard over Tom Gordon’s rampant drumming.  Geoff Gascoyne held the whole performance together on double bass and some nifty bass guitar, Old Father Time to the swirling evolution going on across the stage.

Niall Gregg in Planet Waves. Photo credit: Derek Clark

Planet Wave continues to Glasgow and Aberdeen, with a further performance in Perth later in the year. LINK: The words to all of Edwin Morgan’s Planet Wave poems can be found HERE.

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