The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers – World of the Gods
(The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 28 May 2023. Live Review by Patrick Hadfield)
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Little over a month after the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played host to Gwilym Simcock with a thrilling evening of original music, they returned with another collaboration. A revival, their work with Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers dates back to 2010. The Japanese art of taiko – literally “drum” – is a ritualised, stylised form of percussion, featuring a choreographed theatricality; having missed the 2010 shows, I couldn’t conceive how the two cultures of taiko and modern big band jazz would blend together.
I clearly underestimated the skills of the SNJO, the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, and, in particular, the SNJO’s director, Tommy Smith, who wrote the music. Together, they produced an evening of compelling, exciting, powerful music.
The three drummers of Mugenkyo Taiko were stage right, with their array of drums and percussion. The fifteen members of the SNJO were, unusually, crowded onto the other side.
Between them in a crucial position both physically and musically was Alyn Cosker, behind his drum kit. Cosker’s drums may have been dwarfed by the taiko, but he brought the worlds of jazz and Japanese percussion together, keeping the orchestra swinging along while also complementing Mugenkyo Taiko. Smith explained during a brief interlude to allow Mugenkyo Taiko to rearrange their drums that Cosker had been involved in the project from an early stage, so key was he to its success. It clearly paid off: he seemed to incorporate a lot of the taiko rhythmic patterns into his own playing, his drumming fitting seamlessly with the Japanese drums.
Mugenkyo Taiko themselves demonstrated both flexibility as well as endurance. While they kept up a pretty unrelenting beat, their pulse was also syncopated: they added to the SNJO’s natural swing rather working against it. Smith described how he’d wanted to keep ritualised formality of the taiko within the musical setting of the big band, and the three performers brought their theatricality to bear.
Smith’s music incorporated themes from traditional Japanese melodies while maintaining his high standards for jazz writing. The music had an Ellingtonian feel – indeed, there seemed to be some direct nods in the Duke’s direction. The orchestral arrangements were full of a rich interplay between the sections of the band as well the Mugenkyo Taiko: Smith had used their rhythmic patterns as the foundation for much of the work.
The ten pieces that made up the suite were named after a few of the many Shinto gods. The taiko are traditionally associated with war and thunder, and pieces dedicated to the God of War and God of Thunder & Lightning used the Japanese drums to their full effect: even up in the gods, where I was appropriately seated, I felt my body being moved by the force of their sound, and some members of the orchestra shielded their ears to protect their hearing. But there were many moments of subtlety, too, the music bringing out a gentler side to both the taiko and the orchestra. Together, the SNJO, Mugenkyo Taiko and gorgeous music were a tremendous combination.
LINK: SNJO website