Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with Geoffrey Keezer – The Art Of Arranging
(Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, 1 October 2023. Live review by Mark McKergow)
Arranger, pianist and composer Geoffrey Keezer’s short visit to Scotland concluded with this sensational show with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO). The mix of rich orchestrations, ensemble playing and top-class soloing had the audience on their feet.
Geoffrey Keezer may be the best musician you’ve never heard of. The last in a stellar line of pianists to be a Jazz Messenger with drummer/bandleader Art Blakey, Keezer has performed, arranged and produced for Ray Brown, Art Farmer, Dianne Reeves, Sting and many more. He has been commissioned around the world from Mainly Mozart to Carnegie Hall, and his tune Refuge from the album Playdate won the 2023 Grammy for best instrumental composition, cementing his global position as an all-round top talent.
Keezer has been part of Tommy Smith’s arranging/composing team for the SNJO for some two decades – so there was a wealth of material to pick for this short tour focusing on his work. As soon as the orchestra took to the stage, it was clear that Keezer was marshalling his resources carefully. The bottom-end instruments (Bill Fleming’s baritone sax and Owen Pickering’s bass trombone) were not in their usual one-foot-in-the-wings positions but were centre stage, right at the heart of the action. Keezer is a master at not simply orchestrating a tune turning it inside out (sometimes) and finding the heart of the pieces.
The opening Parker’s Mood saw a deconstruction of the famous Charlie Parker slow blues with a cacophonous opening breaking down into phrases being re-ordered and transformed while keeping and building on the emotional spirit of the piece. Martin Kershaw (alto sax) and Kieran McLeod (trombone) made the most of their solo space, the latter in particularly energetic mood. Keezer worked a great deal with Wayne Shorter, and his tune Virgo Rising offered a chance for a richly varied reading with the full orchestra gelling wonderfully for extended ensemble sections. Sean Gibbs emerged for a well-paced trumpet solo, before the orchestra segued into Keezer’s own Hibiscus, a new composition with sliding trombones, lots of fortepiano moments and a fine piano solo from Keezer himself.
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John Coltrane’s tune Dear Lord appeared on his 1965 album Transition, marking a bridge between his classic quartet recordings and more experimental later work. Keezer worked his magic to honour the spiritual and meditative feel of the original by producing an ensemble piece dripping with lavish harmonies. Teen Town, Jaco Pastorius’ skittering funky feature for Weather Report, gave some very tight sectional work from the horns before Konrad Wiszniewski surged forward on tenor saxophone in typically exuberant style. Calum Gourlay’s bass solo, while not being amplified to the max a la Pastorius, showed his own mastery of the instrument. The first half closed with a terrific reading of Robert Burns’ My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose with Tommy Smith taking the lead on tenor saxophone with a pitch-perfect rendition full of emotion and musicality.
The second half comprised Keezer’s own Southeast Alaska Suite, commissioned by the SNJO in 2005 and revived here. The seven movements chart an ocean fishing trip, with plenty of background given by the composer from the stage about the different sections. Highlights included Helena Kay’s extended solo on curved soprano saxophone on Memory, Frozen Blue; playing across different tempos and feels in one solo is quite an unusual venture and Kay rose fearlessly to the challenge. Bowline (punning a knot and also an arco bass passage) produced a super duet between double bass and Bill Fleming on bass clarinet accompanied by finger drumming and Tom MacNiven’s focused trumpet solo.
The suite continued unfolding idea upon idea. Na Kohola (The Whales) saw a really majestic theme statement on trombone and tenor saxophone and blowing sounds from the horns. Port Alexander Moon saw a typically unconventional gesture from Keezer: have a great big band onstage and then have an extended piano trio! The keyboard soloing was outstanding, exciting and fluid. Captain Jon saw Liam Shortall’s agile trombone out front before Alyn Cosker went the full ‘Animal’ in the drum finale, screaming and crashing. Safe Haven was a welcome, and calm, ending point.
This was an evening was packed with delights. The audience can now look forward to the SNJO’s next outing in December, with the increasingly talked-about young singer Lucy-Anne Daniels appearing as guest in an Ellington programme.