Livestream Reviews

SNJO/Maria Rud – ‘Where Rivers Meet, ‘Parts 1 and 3: Ornette Coleman + Anthony Braxton

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with Maria Rud – Where Rivers Meet, Parts 1 + 3 : The Music of Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton

(Recorded at St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh on 30 April 2021. Streaming until August 15 (link below). Review by Mark McKergow)

SNJO in St Giles Cathedral. Photo credit Derek Clark

Where Rivers Meet is an ambitious project which sees Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) exploring music from the New Thing period of the 1960s and 1970s in partnership with visual artist Maria Rud. Over four streamed performances the orchestra plays new arrangements of classics from the period by four African American saxophonists (Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Anthony Braxton and Albert Ayler) with one of the SNJO regulars taking the saxophone lead. Alongside (or rather, above) this, Maria Rud’s live painting is projected over the band onto the stained glass east window of the ancient St Giles Cathedral in the heart of Edinburgh. This review covers two of the performances – the other two have been reviewed by Patrick Hadfield (link to the other review)

This ‘free jazz’ music is much beloved by a section of the jazz fraternity, and ignored by many who are less persuaded by its charms. Often harmonically ambiguous, impassioned and adventurous (but not the ‘squeaky gate’ of the free improv diehards) the time seems ripe for a revisiting of these tunes. And tunes they are, despite appearances to the contrary with Braxton’s penchant for numerical titles like 40M. I’ve been having a fine time listening to the originals, comparing them to these new arrangements and performances, with my appreciation of both versions enhanced.

Moscow-born and Edinburgh-domiciled artist Maria Rud brings a whole other dimension to the proceedings. She paints on a flat, transparent sheet which allows the evolving image to be projected at huge scale over the orchestra, taking the arch-shape of the window as her outline. Rud’s style is a blend of figurative and more abstract, making me think a bit of Marc Chagall on a dark day (which is a good place to be!). She moves around, clearly taking energy from the music as forms appeared, morphed and vanished; the solid surface on which she worked meant that a wipe of a sponge could create a whole new shape simply by wiping away, as well as applying, paint. Rud also had a role in the video editing, and there’s plenty to watch with the musicians, the art, the artist and the dramatic setting all playing a part.

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Art by Maria Rud. Photo credit: Derek Clark

The opening night saw Paul Towndrow stepping into the shoes of Ornette Coleman with arrangements by Tommy Smith of Lonely Woman and Peace from Ornette’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come album, and Broadway Blues from New York Is Now! Both these albums were originally recorded with ‘chordless’ line-ups of sax, trumpet, bass and drums. This makes the transition to a full line-up quite a challenge, but Tommy Smith’s arrangements were full of energy and rhythm. A lot of emphasis naturally came on Alyn Cosker and Calum Gourlay on drums and double bass respectively, who responded magnificently; Gourlay in particular holding it down like a rock as Towndrow spiralled around the themes.

On the surface, ‘the SNJO meets Anthony Braxton’ has the hallmarks of being a sparsely attended affair, so daunting is Braxton’s uncompromising reputation for avant-garde innovation, numbers named literally as numbers, and scores drawn with lines rather than notation. Martin Kershaw took centre stage on alto saxophone for this one, with arrangements from Paul Harrison. The tunes, lest you want to look them up, were 40M161 and 245. The arrangements really sizzled with energy and complexity, with a deal of counting (made to look easy) and pianist Pete Johnstone doing some fancy armwork directing and conducting. However, it all hangs together very well, some might say surprisingly so, with Cosker and Gourlay again starring. Even if the soloist is mostly ‘free’, the band isn’t (although Paul Harrison introduces some moment of note choice for the backing horns in the Braxton set, bringing to mind the orchestral methods of Keith Tippett back in the day).

This programme is not something that could be done easily as a single live show. There is too much music across the four performances for a comfortable concert, and Maria Rud would have to sustain her painterly energy for an unfeasible period. It may well be that this streamed format suits this particular set of work, which also allows for introductory talks by Tommy Smith and the soloists to introduce the (possibly unfamiliar) music. Better yet, you can still watch it! Tickets allow repeated viewing until mid-August 2021, and these shows would stand up to watching again and again.

LINK: Patrick Hadfield’s review of The Music of Dewey Redman and Albert Ayler

Preview video and purchase tickets HERE

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