Review: SNJO & Paolo Fresu play Miles

Anthony Troon enjoys the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with guest Paolo Fresu at Caird Hall, Dundee in a concert of music from the seminal Miles Davis albums Birth Of The Cool and Miles Ahead

A tour by the SNJO becomes both a polished jazz performance and a reassessment for listeners as the big band revisits the music of luminaries past and present. In this four-gig Scottish series the stunning collaboration between Miles Davis and Gil Evans of more than six decades ago, so influential in much of what has followed, was examined in fine focus with the hard-working and meticulous Italian trumpet and flugel star Paolo Fresu out front. And hard-working is something of an understatement as the programme's first half consisted of 10 of those superb Evans 20-piece charts segueing into one another without a break.

Fresu's style on both instruments showed crispness and clarity, a bolder sound than Miles's trademark wistfulness, and with some nicely detailed grace-notes and occasional flurries. His role was clearly not to replicate Miles Davis's recorded playing but to place his own stamp on these lovely themes (The Maids Of Cadiz, Miles Ahead, Blues For Pablo etc). He played excellently, mostly with open horn but with occasional use of the cup mute. Behind him the orchestra - fully laden with French horns, tuba, bass clarinet, flute and the other jazz exotica from which Evans fashioned his richness of sound tapestry – played its part with warmth and accuracy. But (and this is a small but) a problem with revisiting such rightly famous, recorded jazz compositions is that a degree of freedom must be sacrificed and I did detect an unusual amount of reverence in the air. The drumming (Alyn Cosker) was discreet, the bass playing (Calum Gourlay) was spot-on, precise. Maybe it reflected the kind of thing you get when a conductor doesn't dare to tamper with Mahler.

In the second half the band, reduced to half of its size, actually seemed to grow in inventiveness. With Paolo still out front but maybe with his lip tiring towards the end there was scope at last for some of the outstanding soloists in the ranks (Steve Hamilton on piano, Martin Kershaw on alto, Allon Beauvoisin on baritone) to speak out with Mulligan's Jeru and Wallington's Godchild giving them the opportunity. The John Lewis arrangement of Denzil Best's cracking Miles tune Move, a standout performance, warmed us up for the cold night outside. Oddly, this was the first Tommy Smith event I'd attended without him playing a note: but he conducted the big band and his influence was evident in the slog of rehearsing. Next up for the SNJO will be Kenton (April) and Liebman (June). Wow.

Photo of Paolo Fresu by John Watson

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