REVIEW: SNJO, dir. Tommy Smith, feat. Laura Jurd, Irini Arabatzi, Brian Kellock at Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

The poster for the concert.

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, directed by Tommy Smith, featuring Laura Jurd, Irini Arabatzi and Brian Kellock
(Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 22 April 2018. Concert review by Mark McKergow)

This superlative performance from the SNJO was definitively a ‘concert of two halves’ – both overflowing with outstanding ensemble and solo work from two very different eras of jazz music – from pre-war swing to ECM and free improvisation.

Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite was originally commissioned by Tommy Smith in 1997, the early days of the SNJO. It was premiered in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall with Wheeler himself and Norma Winstone as featured soloists. Twenty years on, the work is revived in the same venue with Laura Jurd taking Wheeler’s seat on flugelhorn and Greek vocalist Irini Arabatzi tackling the Winstone vocal parts. The suite’s eight movements are played as a continuous whole, and the result was so entrancing that my pint remained untouched for the entire hour.

The opening set Jurd’s flugelhorn in a short and atmospheric duet with Peter Johnstone’s piano and the atmosphere was electric within seconds. Kevin McKenzie’s guitar then sparred with Jurd, before the first of several magnificent flugelhorn solos; Jurd’s tone can be mellow, and also hit a fine brightness in the blink of an eye. Wheeler’s writing style often interposed ensemble passages between solos, and the SNJO played this with fine precision and intonation, with changes to the pace and rhythms flowing naturally and flawlessly.

Irina Arabatzi came more to the fore in the second movement, Keeper Of The Light, warming to her role of voice-as-instrument and adding occasional sung words. Her solo here following leader Tommy Smith’s typically powerful tenor turn showed a great musicality and flair. Other outstanding moments during this breathtaking performance included Chris Greive’s trombone alongside Arabatzi in Worlds Apart, the movement culminating in an accelerando passage performed without conductor in total unison. Paul Towndrow put in an excellent alto sax solo on Her Love Is An Endless Stream, leading to another glorious ensemble passage before Laura Jurd showed her power and fluidity once again.

Jurd stood aside to allow Sean Gibbs to come forward for a trumpet solo on Wondering Dream, and was plainly as appreciative as the audience for his bright sound and energy. The penultimate movement, Twilight Chant, saw a latin riff build up into another Tommy Smith tenor explosion with the band playing at 100mph and the soloists flying free into group improvisations. The closing moments, Utopian Recital, were by contrast short, majestic and conclusive. Word is that there will be a CD release of this suite in June 2018 which should be a real treat – look out for it.

This performance would have made an outstanding concert on its own. However, after just 20 minutes the SNJO were back on the stand with a completely new project featuring the music of Mary Lou Williams, pianist, composer and arranger whose output ranged from the 1930s era of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington through the bebop period with Dizzy Gillespie into the 1960s and 1970s.

Williams is one of those ‘hidden figures’ of jazz, working at the very top for decades without becoming a leading star, and the SNJO did justice to this range of output. Edinburgh favourite Brian Kellock took up the piano seat and showed his versatility throughout. The opening Mary’s Idea and Camel Hop really caught the dance hall smoky mood, with top-class dynamics from the ensemble and bright clarinet interjections from Martin Kershaw.  From the other end of Williams’ career, Aries Mood from 1968, composed for the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra as a tribute to Ben Webster, had space for multiple reed solos.

Irini Arabatzi returned to the stage for a sultry rendition of What Your Story, Morning Glory? (no Gallaghers here, of course) and a successful run at a feminised take on In The Land of OO-BLA-DEE, written for Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra in 1949: full of bebop phrases, flattened 5ths and space for Kellock to stretch his fingers. The evening concluded after close on three hours with Jump Caprice, a hugely swinging 12-bar blues which allowed tenor player Konrad Wiszniewski to finally emerge from the shadows and channel his inner Paul Gonsalves at the microphone.

To experience either of these sets would have made for a fine show.  To hear them both on the same evening from musicians overflowing in all directions with creativity and collective endeavour was an unforgettable privilege.  If there was a finer evening of jazz on this planet on 22 April 2018, I don’t know where I’d look for it.

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra:
Reeds: Tommy Smith, Martin Keshaw,  Paul Towndrow, Konrad Wieszniewski, Bill Fleming
Trumpets: Jim Davison, Sean Gibbs, Tom MacNiven, Lorne Cowieson
Trombones: Chris Greive, Liam Shorthall, Kevin Garrity, Michael Owers
Rhythm: Peter Johnstone (piano), Kevin McKenzie (guitars), Calum Gourlay (double bass), Sebastiaan de Krom (drums, sitting in for regular drummer Alyn Cosker)

LINK Video of SNJO, Laura Jurd and Irini Arabatzi in rehearsal for these performances.

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