Album review

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – ‘Where Rivers Meet’

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Where Rivers Meet
(Digital download review by Mark McKergow)

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and its energetic leader Tommy Smith have produced a dazzling variety of work over the past 25 years, ranging from Duke Ellington to Mary Lou Williams, George Gershwin to Kenny Wheeler, Peter & The Wolf in Scots and Culloden Moor with Bobby Wellins, not to mention successful collaborations with international stars including Bill Evans, Makoto Ozone, Kurt Elling, Joe Locke, Arild Andersen and Jazzmeia Horn. And in terms of sheer jazz virtuosity, skill and downright nerve, Where Rivers Meet might just top the lot. 

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The process is not at all simple. Start with four legendary saxophonists from the American ‘New Thing’ free jazz movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton).  Then commission four arrangers to produce suites of music based on three noteworthy performances for each. Then, during the pandemic, rehearse this most challenging music featuring on this occasion the orchestra’s own saxophone soloists rather than visiting guest stars. Then commission Russian-born and Edinburgh resident artist Maria Rud to produce paintings inspired by the music live during the performance. Then, hire the ancient St Giles’ Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Then, on International Jazz Day (30 April 2021) record (and film) over 100 minutes of breath-taking music, live, in a single day. And then mix it so it sounds great, and release it on Bandcamp for SEVEN POUNDS. This, everyone, is not only the record of the week, it’s the sale of the century!

The musical challenge posed to the arrangers is huge. Here are tunes like Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, Dewey Redman’s Dewey’s Tune and Anthony Braxton’s Composition 40M, originally recorded with sparse ‘chordless’ quartet line-ups (two horns, bass, drums), with a strong and footloose improvisational feel. How to connect that with the orchestral line-up? How to create enough freedom in the structure, or enough structure around the freedom? Everyone succeeds in their own way, with different approaches to the task. We can see ‘under the hood’ as the download package also includes PDF scores for all the pieces, showing just how much work went into creating this amazing collection. 

SNJO leader Tommy Smith gets the party started with his work on the Ornette Coleman classics Lonely Woman, Peace and Broadway Blues, with alto saxophonist Paul Towndrow taking the solos. Only, of course, these are not straightforward ‘three choruses in Bb’ solos but rather invitations to expression, sometimes alone, sometimes with sparse backing and sometimes with the full might of 13 other musicians powering up behind. Lonely Woman has plenty of fire in the right places, with Towndrow showing both how quick-fingered and how architecturally aware he is musically. Calum Gourlay (double bass) and Alyn Cosker (drums) carry more than their share of the load here, and in many places – a bravura performance throughout. Peace lilts along and builds toward a smartly constructed tutti passage, while Broadway Blues ebbs and flows in an urgent pulse, Gourley in particular driving both the tune and the tempos.

Paul Towndrow shifts effortlessly from soloist to arranger for the second section based on Dewey Redman, with tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski stepping into the solo spotlight. Dewey’s Tune, originally recorded with Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Eddie Blackwell, is given a lively take with Wiszniewski making good use of double density notes and his freedom in the upper registers. Pianist Pete Johnstone gets a rare solo space here – these are very much saxophone features and there is (inevitably but maybe disappointingly) little solo space for the brass players who are always right on top of their parts. Joie De Livre is turned into a jaunty swinger which plays to everyone’s strengths, while Ray Noble’s classic tune The Very Thought Of You, a late-career favourite of Redman’s, has a lovely arrangement with variety, pizzazz and an extended solo coda for Wiszniewski. 

Translating the work of avant-gardist Anthony Braxton for orchestra must be one of the greatest challenges ever laid down. I am very pleased to report that Paul Harrison’s adaptations are more than up to the task, with Martin Kershaw’s alto sax solos really digging in to convey the sheer uncompromising power of Braxton’s improvisatory style. Composition 40M thrusts along over Calum Gourlay’s punchy bass line in such a tuneful way that I went to the original version and was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it was – I was expecting something more abstract. Perhaps one of the consequences of this set is to encourage folk to go back to the originals and listen again? Composition 161 has some well-pitched multiphonics from Kershaw, while Composition 245 shifts and dissolves into vocalised phrases and words, summoning up voices from another world. A stunning set which deserved repeated listening.

The final suite in this collection sees Tommy Smith in the solo spotlight, tackling the work of Albert Ayler. Arranger Geoffrey Keezer, perhaps more accustomed to producing lush ballads for the SNJO, grasps the task with aplomb and deploys the orchestra’s resources wisely. That means starting with a generous solo passage for Smith’s sax on Ghosts. As I’ve said before, Smith is a modern master of the tenor saxophone and he shows it here to great effect with gut-wrenching low notes, stratospheric harmonics and handsomely shaped phrases, all performed with a heady mix of wild abandon and total control. Ayler’s way of combining passionate soloing with folky rootsy thematic material helps make this music adventurous and accessible all at once, and this is perhaps the stand-out piece of the whole album. It segues into a dramatically reflective Goin’ Home, where Ayler picks up the famous theme from Dvorak’s New World symphony, with Smith’s tenor again pitch-perfect.  The album closes with what else but a stirring take on another typically Ayler-ish favourite, When The Saints Go Marching In. Alyn Cosker gets a deserved extended drum solo before Smith wails it to the pearly gates via some ambitious modulations and all-in whole band improv.

This immensely ambitious and enjoyable album is not being released through the usual streaming and CD channels for now.  Frustrated by the tiny returns generated by the ‘disruptors’, the SNJO management are releasing the music through Bandcamp in the first instance, where you can purchase it and support all these musicians and arrangers directly. Please do that. For the price of an upmarket coffee and croissant on Edinburgh’s George St, you will receive high-quality downloads and the full scores. I understand that a CD release is planned for February 2022. What would be really great would be a DVD release of the performances including Maria Rud’s dramatic artworks being created and projected alongside the live music in St Giles’ Cathedral. The concerts were live streamed so the source material is there…

A tiny taste of the whole visual concert experience on Youtube

LINK: Buy the music direct at SNJO Bandcamp

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