CD Review: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, soloists incl. Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Kurt Elling, Dave Liebman, Joe Locke - American Adventure



Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, soloists - American Adventure
(Spartacus STS018. CD Review by Sebastian Scotney)


It would be enough simply be impressed by the roll-call of star American soloists on this CD by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: among others, Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Kurt Elling, Dave Liebman, and Joe Locke. And then there's the extremely satisfying story of how American Adventure came to made: the Orchestra was on its first ever North American tour in the summer of 2013, playing a series of live dates culminating in an appearance on the main stage at the Montreal Jazz Festival, a tour during which they made a two-day visit to Avatar studios in New York: on went the light, and (whatever the digital equivalent is) the tapes rolled.

But the fact, the bonus, the big idea I'm building up to here... is that the album which results from this is fabulous. It's not just that the soloists are given the perfect contexts through some very fine arrangements to really deliver the best of themselves; it is also that the band comes across consistently so strongly and so well. I've heard stories that many of the Americans were not just impressed, they were genuinely bowled over by how good the SNJO are in every department. On this evidence, it's easy to understand why.

It's not reasonable to single out individuals, but Alyn Cosker is remarkable on drums, propelling the band, particularly on Yes or No, a Fred Sturm arrangement. The bass clef team - Calum Gourlay on bass, Bill Fleming on baritone sax (listen to his ghostly shadowing of the higher parts in Chick Corea's Quartet No.1/ Part 2 in an arrangement by Tommy Smith) and Michael Owers on bass trombone - make quite outstanding contributions throughout.

The concept behind the album is to give a number of soloists, each with a recognizable and strong identity and personality, the space to work with the full band. And perhaps that is the real miracle: there isn't a single track where a soloist is working against the grain of an arrangement.

That trick works right from the start. Mike Stern, on Marcus Miller's tune Splatch also in an arrangement by Fred Sturm, produces a powerful and elegant electric guitar wail over a full band at full tilt. Maybe there's a point being made here. The SNJO is rare among big bands in not normally making a guitar chair available. So perhaps Sturm's arrangement for Stern is the ultimate red carpet of welcome.

In Pendulum by Richie Beirach, not one but three soloists are required unhurriedly to assert theit presence and to make their mark, and each of them does exactly that. With the seagull sounds at the end of Donny McAslan's solo on tenor [02:44] you sense he has risen skyward before taking his leave. Then Dave Kikoski on piano is magisterial. And in Dave Liebman's solo outing on soprano sax, he rides an ever-rising tide, ratchets up the energy, responds in kind to the explosive sounds going on around him, but also succeeds in matching a sudden fleeting moment of calm in the storm [09:25]

Another moment I have found myself going back to repeatedly is a remarkable, astringently atonal section on Geoffrey Keezer's arrangement of Coltrane's Dear Lord. It's at [06:16]. Just listen, it's a perfect take of some fiendishly complex writing. These moments of inspiration are not accidents. The SNJO will shortly ratchet up its hundredth project since its inception in 1995, including several involving the soloists on this record. Tommy Smith knows what will work, and also has the knack and the super-human dedication to make good things happen.

There is another surprising feature. The album has been recorded with astonishing immediacy and presence, it won't be long before the kind of people who always want you to hear their new speakers will be onto it. (Here I go...). It reminded me of that direct-to-disc Sheffield Labs recording of Buddy Rich's Class of '78. This is very good sound, and deserves to be savoured through good audio equipment.

I know it's only February, but heck, this is going to be among my albums of the year.

American Adventure is officially released on February 17th

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