Review: Tommy Smith/Svara-Kanti, Glasgow

Fred Grand cites Svara-Kanti's cross-cultural fusions and the sterling work of Tommy Smith's big bands as strong evidence that jazz subsidy can be money very well spent. Neil Cowley did the corporate bit at the Apple Store

As if I hadn't already filled my boots on Neil Cowley the previous evening, news came over Twitter of a 5pm gig in the Apple Store. Playing a digital piano, of course, he belted out a snappy and well-received 30-minute set before dropping a few hints that he'd like to see his new album at the top of the iTunes jazz chart. Good to see the festival getting the message out on to the streets, and Cowley brought new meaning to the phrase retail therapy.

Back to the main event, and I decided to pass up Ryan Quigley's Big Band Beatles set in favour of some Indo-jazz fusion. I'm sure that Beatles guru Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh would have approved, though Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti is far more than just a vehicle for his virtuosic fusion of Western and Indian classical guitar stylings. Joined by vocalist Japjit Kaur, internationally renowned tabla player Sarvar Sabri and acclaimed violinist Jackie Shave (leader of the Britten Sinfonia), the group straddle jazz, raga and contemporary classical traditions. It was slightly disappointing that the event only drew around 40 people, though multi-stage festivals will always suffer from the odd programme clash.

Opening with a Thacker composition – a trio for guitar, tabla and violin – the interface between contemporary classical music, Eastern traditions and the post-ECM sound was very apparent. This could easily have been a McLaughlin/Hussain project, or Ralph Towner and Colin Walcott jamming in an early edition of Oregon. In a similar programme to that presented recently in the Alchemy festival at London’s South Bank Centre, the theme of the evening was decidedly intercultural. It was presented as a classical recital but there was nevertheless a free-flowing current of improvisation running through the music. Fusing old and new aspects of two very different musical cultures, Thacker's programme contained a piece by Shirish Korde (who is not only a noted composer but also studied jazz at Berklee), a five-movement composition by Scottish composer Nigel Osborne, a specially commissioned piece written by the legendary father of minimalism Terry Riley (Swar Amant), and a haunting traditional folk song, Nightingale Of Punjab, which the ensemble played as an encore.

Possibly a bold programming decision for a jazz festival, something which Thacker acknowledged during the show, this form of cross-cultural fusion has nevertheless been a frequently fascinating strand of the contemporary jazz scene for many years. Glasgow's festival doesn't flinch from offering concert-goers a chance to hear music from every point on the spectrum, and jazz-attuned ears will have found lots to enjoy in an occasionally challenging programme of new music. Thacker's pieces were generally the most jazz-leaning music of the evening and one, Garland Of Sounds, even used the Aeolian mode with a flattened fifth for an exotic bluesy feel. Svara-Kanti tour the UK this autumn, and if you're at all sympathetic to cross-cultural fusions which dip in and out of jazz, I'd certainly recommend that you check your local listings.

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Tommy SmithTHACKER'S project was made possible by a grant from Creative Scotland, a reminder of the frequently symbiotic relationship between relatively non-commercial performing arts and state subsidy. Rather a neat segue into Tommy Smith's Sunday afternoon show, because until recently a grant from Creative Scotland has underpinned so much of the saxophonist's sterling work as a jazz educator. Recently announced swingeing austerity measures appeared to place the very survival of Smith's projects in doubt, but a way out thankfully seems to have been secured through a combination of Lottery funding and other government grants. 

Sunday afternoon's show gave Smith (pictured right) the opportunity to show Glasgow's festival the fruits of his tireless work. First up in a double bill was his Youth Jazz Orchestra, playing a swinging selection of pieces from their recent CD Emergence (Spartacus Records). Family and friends syndrome undoubtedly swelled the audience, although it's fair to say that the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) are quite a draw in their own right on the back of their current ECM release with Arild Andersen. In a tight 50-minute set, Ruaridh Pattison (alto saxophone) was the pick of the soloists, although an extended Cotton Tail featured almost the entire band and showed that Smith can clearly draw on strength in depth. There was nothing elementary or watered down about the band's approach, and every chance many of the youngsters will use it as a springboard in to the full SNJO or successful solo careers.

The second half of the programme was given over to the SNJO. As impressive as the youth academy had been, the difference in quality was nevertheless appreciable. It drafted in stalwarts such as Alyn Cosker, Paul Towndrow, Martin Kershaw and Ryan Quigley, and the arrangements and voicings were that bit richer and the solos more crafted and flamboyant. Smith had just flown in from the West Coast of Canada, though jet-lag clearly hadn't kicked in as he blazed through Woody Herman's Apple Honey. "Anybody know a good saxophone repair man?" he joked after his frantic blow. The repertoire was very much drawn from the "classic" era with lots of Ellington and Basie, though a crisp arrangement of Norwegian Wood meant that I did get to hear a small part of Quigley's homage to The Beatles after all. With a Cat Anderson-like range, the trumpeter is rapidly developing into great showstopper. New to the repertoire was Billy Strayhorn's arrangement of Grieg's Morning Mood, while Smith's arrangement of Dreams Are Free (originally scored for Bobby Wellins) made a barnstorming climax.

Several of the Youth Orchestra made their full SNJO debuts at this show, and the fact that they could slot in so easily is testament to the rigours of Smith's stewardship. It needs to be acknowledged that some worthwhile ventures in life will always struggle if left purely to the whims of market forces. What Smith has created for scores of young Scots is in many respects beyond price, but recent events have shown that "soft" outcomes are well down the list of current priorities.

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