The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) under the direction of Tommy Smith continue their rich vein of form with this superb rendition of Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite, originally commissioned some 20 years ago and now finally out on CD.Smith commissioned Wheeler to produce this work in 1996, the early days of the SNJO, and before the appearance of the Spartacus label which has done so much to publish and spread the work of these top Scottish musicians. Since Wheeler’s death in 2014 his music has continued to delight fans and attract fresh attention.
Recorded in 2017, the SNJO brings a very full-strength line-up to support the soloists, trumpeter Laura Jurd and vocalist Irini Arabatzi. Laura Jurd spends much of her time on flugelhorn, demonstrating once again her ability to combine sweet tone and lively spring in a compelling style. Irini Arabatzi, a relatively new name, is a great choice for the vocal lines which are very much in the Norma Winstone tradition with more voice-as-horn lines than conventional sung lyrics which adds another rich dimension to the sound throughout this eight-movement composition.
The opening Sweet Sister sets out the stall with a graceful melody statement from Jurd, joined by Arabatzi over a sensitive backing from pianist Pete Johnstone. The first orchestral follows with precise playing before Jurd’s opening solo, with Johnstone once again offering outstanding counterpoints and supportive accompaniment – this interplay is well worth repeated listening and close attention. Keeper Of The Light gives space for Arabatzi’s singing and more tremendous ensemble work before Smith’s tenor saxophone comes to the fore with a characteristically swinging and creative solo.
The work combines a great variety of textures with closely written orchestrated passages moving swiftly into solo space with backings which skilfully utilise the big band’s resources. Jurd’s flugelhorn solo on Her Love Is Like An Endless Dream is truly sparkling, an object lesson in fluidity. Constant Star gives Arabatzi space to show her vocalese talents with a swinging interlude before a soprano sax solo from Martin Kershaw leads into space for a nicely judged drum solo from SNJO stalwart Alyn Cosker. Guest guitarist Rob Luft finally comes to the fore in Wondering Dream where he joins in some inspired interplay with Jurd.
If anything this recording is an even better listen than the live performances given by the same soloists earlier this year (link to review below). Arabatzi in particular is helped by being a little higher in the mix, so the clarity and purity of her contributions are easier to place in the overall context. Anyone who enjoys large-ensemble music, the work of Kenny Wheeler or the developing career of these young performers should take time to listen to this excellent CD.
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra:
Saxophones: Martin Kershaw, Paul Towndrow, Konrad Wiszniewski, Tommy Smith, Bill Fleming
Trumpets: Tom Walsh, Sean Gibbs, Tom MacNiven, Lorne Cowieson
Trombones: Chris Grieve, Phil O’Malley, Liam Shortall, Michael Owers
Piano: Pete Johnstone
Guitar: Rob Luft
Bass: Calum Gourlay
Drums: Alyn Cosker
CD review by Mark McKergow for London Jazz News: http://www.londonjazznews.com/2018/07/cd-review-scottish-national-jazz.html
(Available on www.spartacusrecords.com Spartacus STS026)