Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Where Rivers Meet – Live Review. The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 29th September 2022

This highly ambitious project was first performed last April in Edinburgh’s darkly atmospheric St Giles Cathedral, with Russian artist Maria Rudd’s expressionist visual art projected onto the window above the orchestra. Tonight, SNJO’s Tommy Smith explained that, because of the amount of reverb there, that performance had only an online audience.
So, tonight’s was their first full play-through in front of a live audience, with performances on the following two days in Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
Having heard with great pleasure a little of tonight’s programme in recorded form, it was nevertheless a singular joy to hear it played live in The Queen’s Hall. Three pieces from each of four giants of 1960’s free jazz had been arranged by four associates of the SNJO, with saxophonist-in-chief Tommy Smith providing brief introductions to each suite. What an unusual treat to hear this early Free American Jazz recast for Scottish Jazz orchestra!
First came the three pieces by the great Ornette Coleman (Lonely Woman, Peace and Broadway Blues), the orchestral arrangement duties taken on by Smith himself, with always impressive Adam Jackson the sax soloist. Shifting between sax solo and rhythm section, to reed and horn sections, to playing all fourteen together, it did justice to the original pieces whilst taking them deep into big band territory. The level of playing by all was superb.
The second Free Jazz Giant to feature was Albert Ayler, the orchestrations (of Ghosts, Goin’ Home and When The Saints Go Marching In) this time by Geoffrey Keezer who has a long association with the SNJO. Smith took the honours as soloist and what utter fun this suite was, full as it was of extended technique on Smith’s sax, a grand mixture of extreme control and playfulness. The rhythm section was in overdrive much of the time, drummer Alyn Cosker opening the third tune with a delightful, slowly unfolding solo.
Musing about the first half during the interval, it struck this female jazz fan that of the fourteen accomplished musicians on stage tonight, none were women. I wondered how the little girl seated near to me may have been affected by this under-representation.
Next the Dewey Redmond suite, orchestrated by SNJO veteran Paul Towndrow was presented. SNJO stalwart Konrad Wiszniewski played with his usual drama and high competence Towndrow’s take on Joie De Vivre (in which pianist Peter Johnstone’s solo scintillated), Dewey’s Tune and The Very Thought Of You.
Anthony Braxton was the source of the final suite, arranged for orchestra by accomplished pianist Paul Harrison, the solos played by Martin Kershaw. For this listener, this tapestry-like suite was the highlight amongst an entire evening of tours de force, perhaps due to the outstanding richness of the arrangements and quality of playing especially from Kershaw. It felt as though there was more air in these three arrangements, the horn players especially at times seeming to have a level of freedom not always seen in tight big band works.

The entire evening felt like a privilege, a luxury even, in which the arrangers commanded as much respect as the musicians, and made one hungry for the next in the current SNJO/Tommy Smith series: The Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra playing on 15th and 16th October in Glasgow and Edinburgh; and In The Spirit Of Duke, an Ellington-fest on 1st, 2nd and 3rd December at Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews respectively.

Phone snaps by Fiona Mactaggart.

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