CD review: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

spiritIn The Spirit Of Duke
(Spartacus STS 017)

Whenever I hear the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, either in concert or on a recording I must confess to a rather rather sad, Little Englandish, slight mean-mindedness that prompts me to ask the question: Why can’t England produce a band like this?

And then my thoughts turn to the BBC Big Band, which, my flawed logic tells me, is the nearest England has to an equivalent of the SNJO. Except that I assume the Beeb is for the whole of the United Kingdom, and I assume, too, that some of my licence fee (and some, therefore, of the licence fees of Mr P Bacon of Dunfermline, and Mr P Bacon of Abergavenny and Mr P Bacon of Carrickfergus) is paying its (now freelance) musicians. So in a way the BBC Big Band is our UK national jazz orchestra.

Which then prompts me to ask the question: So why is it so piss-poor compared to the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra? And, therefore, why shouldn’t Mr P Bacon of Dunfermline’s BBC licence fee contribution go to the SNJO instead?

But, let us get on to the job in hand.

Tommy Smith and his SNJO have tackled a lot of the great jazz composers in their time, from Mingus to Monk to Metheny. And Tommy Smith and his players have certainly pulled all the stops out for this one.

Recorded on tour in Scotland in 2012, they cover a wide range of Ellington’s work from the 1920 Creole Love Call to three extracts from The Queen’s Suite, which Ellington wrote for our own Elizabeth II in 1959. Tommy has this theory that the Duke was rather taken with the 32-year-old monarch, and uses the beauty of the music that she inspired in him to back it up. We shall make up our own minds.

There are also favourites like Prelude To A Kiss and Harlem Air Shaft, and some Duke-arranged Grieg, too! Far too much fabulous music to discuss here in any detail.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

What is most remarkable – though I should expect this of any SNJO record – is just how exciting this music is, and how thoroughly the musicians have taken it to their hearts. You listen to Ryan Quigley hitting some of those high, blasting trumpet notes to know that he is holding nothing back in his attempt to get to the heart and soul of the music. And to bring his own heart and soul into it as well. This is no historical rendering – the music is given new life.

That title says it all. There is just such a great spirit to this band and to this recording (richly preserved in the mixing by none other than ECM maestro Jan Erik Konshaug at his Rainbow Studios in Oslo).

Brian Kellock is the piano star, and Callum Gourlay does some fabulous work on double bass, but in fact it is the band – as a whole and individually – which shines brightest, thoroughly engaged in both tapping that Ellington spirit and then mining it so fruitfully, while also being themselves. So let’s hear it, too, for Ruaraidh Pattison, Martin Kershaw, Konrad Wiszniewski and Bill Fleming on reeds, Cameron Jay, Tom MacNiven and James Marr on trumpets, Chirs Greive, Phil O’Malley and Michael Owers on trombones, and Alyn Cosker on drums.

And, of course, Tommy Smith, for caring so much about it all that he transcribed Mood Indigo from an old film and Black & Tan Fantasy from a ’58 concert recording, imported some authentic mutes from America, insisted there should be no monitors for the performance, and encourage the musicians to memorise whole junks of the music in order to really internalise it.

This is also one of those rare occasions when I am not complaining about the length of the CD despite the fact that it is a mammoth 71 minutes. At the end, Smith jokes to the audience that they will be back for the second set, that Duke wrote 2000 tunes and that the night is still young. The musicians laugh but you know they’re thinking: “Yes, let’s do it, let’s extend this gig to daybreak and beyond.”

The BBC Big Band would have claimed their – no, wait, our? – money and been halfway home already.

Categories: CD review

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