When guitarist John Scofield joined the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra on tour in March 2010, it was an event that not only furthered the orchestra’s reputation for collaborations at the highest level. It marked fifteen years of conspicuous progress for what The Times newspaper has recognised as ‘Britain’s most polished and versatile big band’.
Formed in 1995, under the tirelessly committed and confident direction of saxophonist Tommy Smith, SNJO has developed into a world class ensemble capable of playing the classic big band music of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Kenton and Herman with tremendous style and authority.
Celebrations of jazz masters from Mingus, Monk, Miles and Coltrane through to Wayne Shorter, Oliver Nelson, Chick Corea, Ray Charles and Pat Metheny have underlined the orchestra’s ease of mobility across the broader jazz canon. And commissioning and creating bold and ambitious new work such as the visionary English composer Keith Tippett’s Autumn and Smith’s own World of the Gods, the world’s first collaboration between jazz big band and Japanese taiko drumming, have confirmed SNJO’s determination to continue jazz’s spirit of adventure.
The many internationally regarded musicians and composers with whom SNJO has worked have endorsed The Times’ assessment. Vibes virtuoso Gary Burton, Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine, top American saxophonists Joe Lovano, David Liebman and Bobby Watson, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, drummer Gary Novak, and guest directors including the Gil Evans of our times, Maria Schneider, German composer Florian Ross and American pianist Geoffrey Keezer have all heaped praise upon the orchestra.
A Scottish national jazz orchestra was mooted and indeed might have been possible long before SNJO came into being. Since the music’s early days Scotland has been producing jazz musicians capable of working in refined circles but forced by economic realities to move beyond Scotland. In 1938, a young trombonist from Glasgow called George Chisholm recorded with Fats Waller and unwittingly began a supply line that has continued unabated.
From Chisholm’s bandmate, Ayrshire-born trumpeter Tommy McQuater, who worked with Benny Carter shortly after Chisholm’s experience with Waller, through to Fife-born Joe Temperley, who currently occupies the baritone saxophone chair in Wynton Marsalis’s renowned Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, having previously worked with Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, Scots have made their mark in jazz.
Tommy Smith himself had joined the exodus that had also included trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, saxophonists Bobby Wellins and Tommy Whittle and guitarist Jim Mullen when he went to study at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music as a teenager and wound up touring the world as a member of Gary Burton’s group.
On returning to Scotland, Smith found a jazz scene beginning to create its own strong identity, through his contemporaries Brian Kellock, Colin Steele, John Rae, Kevin Mackenzie and the Bancroft twins, Tom and Phil, as well as an increasing appetite for playing jazz among young music students, and he committed himself to staying in Scotland and championing jazz at all levels. His efforts in jazz education would eventually lead to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
in Glasgow establishing Scotland’s first full-time jazz course in 2009, with Smith, literally a professor of jazz, as its principal. Long before that, however, Smith had created his own jazz academy, SNJO, with its feeder group, the Tommy Smith
Youth Jazz Orchestra, formed in 2004 to ensure that Scotland’s burgeoning jazz talent was both heard at its best and given the optimum training for a career in jazz.
Smith’s vision for SNJO from the very beginning was a band that could perform orchestral jazz in all its many guises with precision, discipline, panache and above all, expression, and he has achieved this spectacularly. For SNJO concert regulars the highlights have been many. The sound of this by and large young Scottish ensemble conveying the brawny might of Charles Mingus’s gospel and blues-infused compositions remains unforgettable, as does the orchestra’s drummer, Alyn Cosker, filling the shoes of Buddy Rich and steering his colleagues expertly through Stan Kenton’s demanding orchestrations.
Tributes to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane have become much more than faithful homages as SNJO’s team of arrangers, including Fred Sturm, Joe Locke and Pino Iodice, have created what amount to new, multi-dimensional compositions while staying true to the character of the original themes. Excursions into Astor Piazzolla’s new tango, Steely Dan’s sophisticated, jazz-inspired rock music and the world of animated film soundtracks have further emphasised SNJO’s scope and mastery of differing genres and moods.
While these examples live on only in the memory for the time being, three triumphs can be relived on demand. If SNJO’s recording of Miles Ahead, with Ingrid Jensen as featured soloist, was early confirmation of an ensemble playing with the composure and attention to detail required by music arranged by Gil Evans and originally given voice by Miles Davis, two subsequent CD releases have raised the bar significantly.
Smith’s re-orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue took George Gershwin’s Jazz Age concerto on a previously unimagined twenty-first century adventure, providing a platform for the irrepressible Scottish pianist Brian Kellock’s flamboyant skills and unleashing the fiery individual creativity that comes as standard in a SNJO performance. It has since been followed on CD by Smith’s own composition Torah, originally written for Joe Lovano but featuring Smith in a tour de force of saxophone expression within an orchestral framework of outstanding quality and vigour.
When not maintaining SNJOs’ reputation for first class performances, the individual members are involved in a spectrum of jazz activity of their own, from the punchy hard bop of trumpeter Ryan Quigley’s award-winning sextet and saxophonist Paul Towndrow’s equally hard driving group Newology to trombonist Chris Greive’s experiments with NeWt, alto saxophonist Martin Kershaw’s ambitious Hero as a Riddle project and drummer Alyn Cosker’s electric trio. Such a range of interests and the strength of personality that develops as a result ensures that individually and collectively the members of SNJO remain razor sharp in the pursuit of jazz excellence.