Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Live At 25
(The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. 24 September 2021. Live Review by Patrick Hadfield)
Tommy Smith has clearly been counting the days since the SNJO last played in front of an audience – 635 of them, he calculated. And the band seemed every bit as pleased as the socially-distanced audience to be back, at last, at the Queen’s Hall.
In the interim, the band had several online-only shows, including a performance last December marking their 25th anniversary which featured many of the tunes played last Friday. Keeping any band going for so long is an achievement, but for a big band it’s something else, and one that seems right to celebrate with a live audience. The personnel change naturally enough: this show saw Andrew Robb depping on bass, Mark Nightingale on trombone, and Helena Kay joining the band on alto.
After their enforced hiatus, the band started slowly, building up a head of steam leading into Ellington’s Daylight Express, one of a number tunes by the Duke celebrating the joys of touring by train, the trumpets and reeds simulating the whistles as the rhythm section section gathered pace. Once they’d got up to speed, the well oiled machine that is the SNJO powered through a whistle-stop tour of jazz history for the first half of the concert. On Daylight Express and Black and Tan Fantasy/Creole Love Call which followed it, the band set down their credentials with an ability to swing that was a joy to hear.
Some of the pieces were small band numbers arranged for the big band, and credit must go to the arrangers whose work made this seem so natural. Kieran McLeod’s arrangement of the overly familiar If I Were A Bell was witty and energetic, full of powerful, dynamic punctuation. Similarly, Christian Jacobs’ arrangement of Joe Zawinul’s Young and Fine, featuring Smith on tenor, utilised the band to full effect, with Robb highlighting his skill on bass.
Things were slowed down for Bobby Wellins’ haunting Culloden Moor Suite, Epilogue, featuring Anoushka Nanguy‘s trombone. The change in pace emphasised the contrast with what had preceded and marked a highlight in the first set.
The focus was on the saxophones in the second set as the SNJO played excerpts from Where Rivers Meet. A large scale project streamed in April and newly available as a download, this features the work of four influential saxophonists – Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton – and the band played one extended piece associated with each. These four were rooted in the free jazz movement of the early 1960s; the arrangers had their work cut out for them.
The set opened with Smith’s blistering arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, Kay taking the lead alto saxophone part. What followed was an intense, heartfelt solo, wringing out the blues that Coleman kept just below the surface. Smith himself took the centre stage for Ayler’s Ghosts, arranged by Geoff Keezer. After a long, impassioned free introduction full of squawks and honking, the piece resolved into a powerful, bluesy spiritual, ending on an excerpt from Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From The New World”).
Konrad Wiszniewski took the helm for Dewey Redman’s Dewey’s Tune, and Martin Kershaw lead on Anthony Braxton’s Composition 40M, which arranger Paul Harrison had crafted into another piece dripping with the blues. With the saxes taking the limelight, the rest of the orchestra were brought in for depth, texture and dynamics, but were otherwise able to take a breather – except for the superlative rhythm section who maintained their high energy backing throughout. For long periods it was effectively an intensive saxophone trio as Robb and Alyn Cosker on drums drove the soloists on. Things quietened down a notch for the gentle closing number, Keezer’s lovely arrangement of Robert Burns’ My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose.
This was a fine, exciting return to live performance by the SNJO, who have a plans for a range of shows over the next few months.
Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield