The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra was established by tenor saxophonist and director Tommy Smith in 1995. Since that time the band has devoted itself to re-imagining the music of past jazz greats, that include Weather Report, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. Far from mere imitation, SNJO projects brim with creativity, shining bright and loud.
This big band has been no stranger to All About Jazz, their very fine Spartacus RecordsMiles Ahead (Spartacus, 2003) appearing in these pages. Here Rhapsody In BlueLive (2009) is given a reconsideration and In The Spirit Of Duke documents the orchestra in a Dukish mood.
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Tommy Smith, Brian Kellock Rhapsody In BlueLive Spartacus Records 2009
Don't mess with the Canon. How dare Tommy Smith have the hubris to "re-imagine" Gershwin's masterpiece. It wasn't that long ago that we were treated to the well-meaning but poorly received attempt by pianist Marcus Roberts on Portraits in Blue (Sony, 1995). Okay, well maybe it has been some time...only illustrating that a piece of music like Rhapsody In Blue should not be messed with. That is, at least, not without a great deal of thought.
Tommy Smith, tenor saxophonist and director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra has done his necessary homework and spent a long time in the woodshed to re-imagine Gershwin's masterpiece in a way that both pays homage and accurately emphasizes its jazz components. Warning! This is not Oscar Levant's Rhapsody In Blue. What it is, is fifty-plus minutes of an undulating tone poem, easily heard as based on the Gershwin composition, but fully expanded, exploded and re-integrated into something new and vital.
The reimagined piece does not begin with a serpentine clarinet (that occurs at the eight-minute mark), rather a reed tremolo that develops into a brief overture revealing the composition's skeleton at about the one-minute mark. Pianist Brian Kellock presents a piano interlude almost totally unrelated to the piece that evolves into a 4/4 blues romp before the band begins incorporating more familiar elements from the rhapsody. The piano is de-emphasized and the orchestra re- emphasized. Smith's deft arrangement allows for the orchestra's inherent brightness to be experienced full force.
While not necessary, having a passing familiarity with Rhapsody In Blue played straight has the benefit of the listener knowing where sections of Smith's creation comes from, enhancing the listening by providing context. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra proves a perfect driver for this musical vehicle. Smith's vision and direction renders crystalline the note on the staff that is as provocative as it is enjoyable.
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Tommy Smith, Brian Kellock In The Spirit of Duke Spartacus Records 2012
Like his treatment of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, Tommy Smith's attention to the Ellington canon is both refreshing and reverent. If a single characteristic stands about the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra it is its clarity. Smith's writing and arrangements efficiently use the band's considerable strengths to produce a precisely defined refinement. He readily retains the spirit of the music, remaining close to its source, but augments and complements the music using his own rules and vision.
The Ellington repertoire chosen for this concert, recorded live in Scotland in October 2012 is a carefully mixed bag of the familiar and not-so-familiar. "Black and Tan Fantasy/Creole Love Call" open the show with a decidedly early view of Ellington's genius. It is rendered with just enough a sepia tint to color it old but not anachronistic. "Harlem Air Shaft," "Prelude To A Kiss" and "Ko-Ko" are crisp like the first taste of cold beer. The concert closes with "Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue" featuring Smith in the Paul Gonsalves role, where it properly tears it up. Perfect music and perfect sound are these two discs.
Rhapsody In BlueLive
Tracks: Rhapsody In Blue.
Personnel: Tommy Smith: tenor saxophone, director; Martin Kershaw: clarinet, alto saxophone; Paul Towndrow: alto saxophone; Konrad Wiszniewski: tenor saxophone; Bill Fleming: baritone saxophone; Ryan Quigley: trumpet; Paul Newton: trumpet; Tom MacNiven: trumpet; Linsey McDonald: trumpet; Chris Greive: trombone; Michael Campbell: trombone; Michael Owers: trombone; Lorna McDonald: bass trombone; Graeme Scott: guitar; Brian Kellock: piano; Calum Gourlay: acoustic bass; Alyn Cosker: drums.
In The Spirit Of Duke
Tracks: Black and Tan Fantasy; In The Hall Of The Mountain King; Jack the Bear; Le Sucrier Velours; Daybreak Express; Concerto For Cootie; Harlem Air Shaft; Prelude To A Kiss; Sepia Panorama; Ko-Ko; Morning Mood; Anitra's Dance; The Single Petal Of A Rose; Kinda Dukish & Rockin' In Rhythm; Sunset and the Mockingbird; Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.
Personnel: Tommy Smith: tenor saxophone & director; Brian Kellock: piano; Ruraidh Pattison: lead alto & soprano saxophone, clarinet; Martin Kershaw: lead clarinet & alto saxophone; Konrad Wiszniewski: alto & tenor saxophone, clarinet; Bill Fleming: alto & baritone saxophone, clarinet & bass clarinet; Ryan Quigley: Cameron Jay, Tom MacNiven, James Marr: trumpets; Chris Greive & Phil O'Malley: trombones; Michael Owers: bass trombone; Calum Gourlay: acoustic bass; Alyn Cosker: drums.