Scotland's new jazz union

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra forged new links with the American scene during its 2013 US tour and has captured the result on an outstanding new CD with leading stateside guests, says Michael Tucker


Spartacus STS018

Since its launch by director Tommy Smith in 1995, the SNJO has gone from strength to strength. An impressive stream of imaginative concert tours  – with eminent guest soloists drawn from Europe, Scandinavia and America – has been matched by a series of excellent recordings. The breadth and depth of the orchestra’s repertoire is evident in the fact that recently, such recordings have included celebrations of the music of both Ellington and the ECM label.

Cut in New York during a summer 2013 tour of the States and Canada which featured Ellington material and Smith’s recasting of Rhapsody In Blue the present disc continues the good news, and then some: the handsomely packaged programme of American modern-day classics is as reflective and intelligent as it is freshly hot and passionate.

With contributions from arrangers of the calibre of Fred Sturm and Jim McNeely, the album both smokes and caresses to multi-hued effect.

It is bookended by distinctive, equally characterful pieces from Marcus Miller (Splatch, where Stern - pictured right - stretches out over the initially elegant, increasingly potent and punchy funk of this superior piece from the Davis Tutu album) and Wayne Shorter (Pinocchio, its Jacob Mann arrangement and driving work from the ever-tasty Clarence Penn more redolent of the Weather Report version from Mr Gone than the Davis quintet’s reading on Nefertiti).

Crisp and hard-hitting while flowing and dynamically diverse, melodically appealing while harmonically exploratory (hear Randy Brecker - pictured left - on arranger Geoffrey Keezer’s extensive revisioning of Coltrane’s Dear Lord from the Transition album), the seven equally vibrant pieces feature on-the-button work from the orchestra and each of the invited guests: the SNJO’s own Brian Kellock and Alyn Cosker shine whenever they appear.

Ellington has featured in the SNJO’s repertoire since the mid-1990s: here, in his only playing on the date, musical director Smith conjures 16 bars of affectingly measured mood on Mingus’s Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love, where the broadly phrased baritone of Kurt Elling - pictured right - recalls his 2009 Concord tribute to the music that Johnny Hartman recorded with Coltrane in the early 1960s.

Other highlights include a storming outing by tenorist Bill Evans on Chick Corea’s Quartet No 1, the breadth and depth of the fluid voicings which underpin the intertwoven rhythmic suspensions and swinging drive of Locke and Cosker on Yes Or No (another Shorter gem and like Splatch, arranged by Sturm) and diversely urgent, compelling solos from McCaslin, Kikowski and Liebman on Richie Beirach’s Pendulum.

In truth, there’s not a moment here which isn’t marked by that special, finely distilled blend of literate intelligence and improvisational verve which one has long come to associate with the SNJO. Contemporary big-band music of the highest quality, and as such, totally recommended. The album can be ordered from Spartacus Records.

(1) Splatch; (2) Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love; (3) Yes Or No; (4) Pendulum; (5) Dear Lord; (6) Quartet no.1 (part 2); (7) Pinocchio (59.21)
Tommy Smith (ts, director) & The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Ru Pattison (as, ss); Martin Kershaw (cl, as); Konrad Wiszniewski (ts); Bill Fleming (bar); Ryan Quigley (t, flh); Cameron Jay (t, flh); Tom MacNiven (t, flh); James Marr (t, flh); Chris Greive (tb); Phil O’Malley (tb); Michael Owers (btb); Brian Kellock (p); Calum Gourlay (b); Alyn Cosker (d) with:
(1) Mike Stern (elg); Joel Frahm (ts).
(2) Kurt Elling (v); Donny McCastlin (f, ts).
(3) Joe Locke (vb); Donny McCaslin (f, ts).
(4) Kellock out; Donny McCaslin (f, ts); David Kikowski (p); David Liebman (ss).
(5) Kellock out; David Kikowski (p);  Randy Brecker (t); Joel Frahm (ts).
(6) Kellock out; Bill Evans (ts); David Kikowski (p); Donny McCaslin (f, ts).
(7) Cosker out; Michael Dease (tb); Joel Frahm (ts); Clarence Penn (d).
New York, June 2013.

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