When Kurt Elling sings with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in May, he’ll be celebrating not only the centenary of Frank Sinatra and the twentieth anniversary of the orchestra itself, he’ll also be celebrating his fifth return to the city where he studied as a young divinity student, Edinburgh.
Elling has been open in his praise for SNJO on these returns to his old haunt, three of which will now have seen him guesting with the orchestra, but he has also expressed a complete lack of surprise that one of the musicians he used to go and see during his student days in the Scottish capital, Tommy Smith, now directs a world class jazz orchestra in Scotland.
Few predicted that Smith, whom Elling describes as “a prince” for his achievements before forming SNJO and his subsequent successes with the orchestra, would achieve quite such high standards of performance when SNJO made its debut in 1995. It was undeniably a good band but it’s taken a lot of hard work and years of perseverance to bring the orchestra to the point where one of the jazz world’s leading musicians and one of many high level players who have guested with the orchestra, trumpeter Randy Brecker would volunteer the following testament:
“The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is, simply put, among the very best jazz orchestras on the planet. It’s full of great soloists, the section work is sheer perfection, and the arrangements and compositions are unforgettable, many having been penned by SNJO’s ‘star’ musical director and saxophonist in residence: the amazing Tommy Smith! My brief tour with SNJO was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life.”
The status that SNJO enjoys today in its twentieth year was built on performances of big band music by masters such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie and visits to the classic arrangements that Gil Evans wrote for Miles Davis. With these often familiar pieces, Smith instilled the discipline that he knew was required while encouraging the musicians under his imaginary baton, who were often brought in on the basis that if they were good enough they were old enough, to express themselves. It was Evans’ Miles Ahead, performed with Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen in 2000, that constituted SNJO’s first album in 2002.
Something happened, though, in the year between the concerts with Jensen and the album’s release that saw the orchestra apparently move up several gears. First, Smith’s Beauty and the Beast suite, written for its featured soloist, Dave Liebman, and premiered at Glasgow Jazz Festival that summer, produced a concert that was frankly hair-raising (in the best possible way). Then, as winter arrived, an exhilaratingly vivid, joyous, blood and guts celebration of Charles Mingus’s bluesy, gospel-soaked music suggested that this orchestra really could mould itself into any shape Smith desired, whether that be to play the music of Stan Kenton or Weather Report or to honour the Shinto gods (in a world-first meeting of jazz orchestra and Taiko drum troupe) or to engage with the complex rhythmical language of South America.
Venezuelan pianist Leo Blanco, whose The End of Amazonia formed part of SNJO’s South American adventure in 2008, marvelled at the way these Scottish musicians could interpret his music so naturally when he received a recording of his composition, although that same year, with the arrival of the orchestra’s second album, Rhapsody in Blue Live, which featured Smith’s fiercely imaginative re-composition of a standard work, many other listeners well beyond Scotland received confirmation of just how adaptable and exuberant this orchestra can be.
With a series of hugely well received appearances at London Jazz Festival, one of the world’s major jazz events, and a repeat triumph of their first Scottish concerts with Elling at European jazz’s great taste-making celebration, Jazz sous les pommiers in Coutances, Normandy as well as a superlatives-strewn tour of America and Canada in the summer of 2013, SNJO’s audience at home now knows it was right to esteem the orchestra as world class.
Even Smith, who will readily tell you that he’s never happy with SNJO’s performances, must feel a semblance of satisfaction with the orchestra’s achievements in recent times, which include rave reviews internationally, both for the authenticity the orchestra brought to Duke Ellington’s music on the album In the Spirit of Duke and for the quality of musicianship on Celebration, the ECM recording with Norwegian bass master Arild Andersen. There have also been outstanding performances of the familiar, in Miles Ahead and Birth of the Cool with Sardinian trumpet master Paolo Fresu, as well as a timely reprise of the long neglected Culloden Suite by Smith’s great hero, fellow Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins.
Rather than looking back, Smith may well prefer to look forward to – and prepare for, with typical assiduousness – the orchestra’s upcoming projects, which as well as celebrating Frank Sinatra with Elling include visiting the diverse repertoires of Benny Golson, Glenn Miller, Mike Stern and Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. A further recording, capturing Japanese piano virtuoso Makoto Ozone’s re-arrangement of Mozart’s 9th Piano Concert for the orchestra, will add to recent successes, the star-studded New York recording American Adventure and the rapturously received Culloden Suite.
In the meantime, Dave Liebman, whose superb soprano saxophone playing and masterly compositions gave Scottish audiences such a thrilling experience when he guested on tour in Scotland with SNJO in June 2013, is happy to provide the ultimate endorsement.
“I had a wonderful time with SNJO during my recent stay,” says Liebman. “The band was professional and very flexible stylistically which my music demands. As people, the feeling of hospitality and warmth was palpable. I can’t say enough about their esteemed leader and from what I can see the main voice for jazz in your country, Tommy Smith. Besides being one of the top players and composers in the world (that’s right–WORLD!!), his leadership of the big band is unparalleled. I have been around some powerful bandleaders in my time (Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Chick Corea), and I can tell you that Tommy ranks up there with the best as a leader/conductor as well as a player. I look forward to performing with the group in the future.”
Kurt Elling and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra Swing Sinatra at The Sage Gateshead (Wednesday, May 20); Dundee Caird Hall (Thursday May 21); Aberdeen Music Hall (Friday May 22); Edinburgh Usher Hall (Saturday May 23); and Glasgow City Hall (Sunday May 24).
Tickets available at www.snjo.co.uk
NB: This article was written by Rob Adams for www.jazzineurope.com – March 2015