Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – “Where Rivers Meet” – News, reviews, articles and commentary from the London jazz scene and beyond


Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Where the 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 works over the past 25 years, ranging from Duke Ellington to Mary Lou Williams, George Gershwin to Kenny Wheeler, Pierre and the Wolf in scottish and Culloden Moor with Bobby Wellins, not to mention successful collaborations with international stars such as Bill Evans, Makoto Ozone, Kurt Elling, Joe Locke, Arild Andersen and Jazzmeia Horn. And in terms of pure jazz virtuosity, skill and nerve, Where the rivers meet may well be ahead of the pack.

The process is not at all straightforward. Start with four legendary saxophonists from the American free jazz movement “New Thing” of the 1960s and 1970s (Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton). Then, task four arrangers to produce musical suites based on three remarkable performances for each. Then, during the pandemic, repeat this most difficult music featuring the orchestra’s own saxophone soloists instead of visiting guest stars. Then order from a Russian-born artist and Edinburgh resident Maria rud to produce paintings inspired by live music during the performance. Then rent the old St Giles Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Then, on International Jazz Day (April 30, 2021), record (and film) over 100 minutes of breathtaking music, live, in a single day. And then mix it up to make it sound good, and release it on Bandcamp for SEVEN POUNDS. This, everyone, isn’t just the record of the week, it’s the sale of the century!

The musical challenge posed to the arrangers is enormous. Here are tunes like that of Ornette Coleman lonely woman, Dewey Redman’s Dewey’s melody and that of Anthony Braxton Composition 40M, originally recorded with scattered “chordless” quartet formations (two horns, bass, drums), with a strong and loose feeling of improvisation. How to relate this to the orchestral training? 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 how much work has gone into creating this amazing collection.

SNJO leader Tommy smith start the party with his work on the Ornette Coleman classics Lonely Woman, Peace and Broadway blues, with the alto saxophonist Paul Towndrow take the solos. Only, of course, these are not simple solos of “three choirs in Bb” but rather invitations to expression, sometimes alone, sometimes with a sparse accompaniment and sometimes with all the power of 13 other musicians behind them. lonely woman has a lot of fire in all the right places, with Towndrow showing both how fast he is and how consciously he is in musical architecture. Calum Gourlay (double bass) and Alyn Cosker (battery) carry more than their share of the load here, and in many places – a performance of bravery throughout. Peace tilts and builds itself towards a cleverly constructed passageway, while Broadway blues ebbs and flows in an urgent pulsation, Gourley in particular driving both the air and the tempos.

Paul Towndrow effortlessly switches from soloist to arranger for the second section based on Dewey Redman, with tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski enter the spotlight solo. Dewey’s air, originally recorded with Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Eddie Blackwell, is lively performed by Wiszniewski making good use of dual density notes and his freedom in the upper registers. Pianist Peter Johnstone gets rare solo space here – these are really saxophone characteristics and there is (inevitably but perhaps disappointingly) little solo space for brass instruments who are always on top of their parts. Joy Of Book is transformed into a casual swinger who plays on each other’s strengths, while the classic Ray Noble tune The very thought of you, a late-career Redman favorite, has a nice arrangement with variety, spice and a long solo coda for Wiszniewski.

Translating the work of avant-garde Anthony Braxton for orchestra must be one of the greatest challenges ever. I am very happy to report that that of Paul Harrison the adaptations are more than up to the task, with that of Martin Kershaw alto saxophone solos really dig to convey the uncompromising power of Braxton’s improvisational style. Composition 40M pushes Calum Gourlay’s punchy bassline in such a melodic way that I went to the original version and was pleasantly surprised by its enjoyment – expected something more abstract. Maybe one of the consequences of this set is to encourage people to go back to the originals and listen to them again? Composition 161 has high-pitched multiphonics from Kershaw, while Composition 245 moves and dissolves into vocalized phrases and words, summoning voices from another world. A breathtaking ensemble that deserved repeated listening.

The latest sequel in this collection sees Tommy Smith in the spotlight solo, tackling the work of Albert Ayler. Arranger Geoffrey keezer, perhaps more accustomed to producing lush ballads for the SNJO, takes the task with aplomb and wisely deploys the orchestra’s resources. This means starting with a generous solo passage for Smith’s sax on Ghosts. As I said before, Smith is a modern tenor saxophone master and he shows it here to great effect with heart-wrenching bass notes, stratospheric overtones, and elegantly shaped phrases, all performed with a heady mix of savage surrender and total control. . Ayler’s way of combining passionate solos with folk and roots themed material helps make this music adventurous and accessible at the same time, and it is perhaps the centerpiece of the whole album. It turns into a dramatic reflection Go home, where Ayler takes up the famous theme of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, with Smith’s tenor perfect again. The album ends on what other than a moving rendition of another quintessentially Ayler favorite, When the saints come on the scene. Alyn Cosker gets a well-deserved extended drum solo before Smith lets it pass through the pearly gates via ambitious modulations and overall group improvisation.

This immensely ambitious and enjoyable album is not being released on the usual streaming and CD channels yet. Frustrated by the small returns generated by the “disruptors”, the management of the SNJO publishes the music via Bandcamp at first, where you can buy it and directly support all these musicians and arrangers. Please do it. For the price of a premium coffee and croissant on Edinburgh’s George Street, you’ll receive high-quality downloads and full sheet music. I understand that a CD release is scheduled for February 2022. What would be really great would be a DVD release of the performances including the dramatic works by Maria Rud created and screened alongside live music in Saint Gilles Cathedral. The concerts were broadcast live, so the source material is there …

A little taste of the whole visual concert experience on Youtube

CONNECT: Buy music directly from SNJO Bandcamp

Categories: Album review

Tagged As: Alyn Cosker, Calum Gourlay, Geoffrey Keezer, Konrad Wiszniewski, Mark McKergow, martin kershaw, Paul Harrison, Paul Towndrow, Pete Johnstone, Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, SNJO, Tommy Smith

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Henry R. Wright

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