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The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra - So Far, So Good…with More On The Way

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The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra
An especially creative jazz ensemble like the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) seldom has time to look back or dwell too long on past achievements. The last couple of years, however, have been marked by several milestone events with even more still to come.

In fact, the band has been so busy with performing, recording and overseas commitments that we almost forgot to tell the world about our many diverse projects. The previous 20 months or so have seen the SNJO take their daring brand of orchestral jazz to new audiences in Europe, the USA and Japan, while reaffirming their commitment to an imaginative and musically ambitious repertoire.

In order to understand the scope and scale of the SNJO’s commitment to ground-breaking jazz, we have to go back to February 2018 for SNJO’s stunning concert series featuring their boldly Scottish interpretation of Prokofeiff’s “Peter and the Wolf" and Saint-Saens’ charming “Carnival of the Animals."

The SNJO’s “Peter" was a tour-de-force of modern jazz music married to the ancient Scots tongue in a great arrangement by Tommy Smith. The work also featured an adaptation of the spoken word by former Scots Makar (*) Liz Lochhead and actor Tam Dean Burn, here playing Peter as a man of advancing years looking back on his careless youth.

If the youngsters in the audience were especially transfixed by a wildly expressive and physical Peter and the Wolf, then the SNJO’s version of “Carnival" had an almost hypnotic effect upon them. Makoto Ozone, guesting as an arranger and piano soloist, brought out all the mesmerising wonder of the French composer’s accidental hit.

The undivided attention of the children in the audience alone vindicated the melding of timeless classical music to smartly-dressed jazz, and it seems that the critics agreed too when the live CD recording of SNJO’s “Peter and the Wolf" was released in spring 2018.

“It’s brilliantly done, so many surprises, and imaginative reinventions, as they take the old story for a walk in new clothes.” —Andrew McGregor, BBC RADIO 3

“Virtuosity and ingenuity with unadulterated theatricality... in a delightful collision between folk tale and big-band swing.” ★★★★★ —Jim Gilchrist, THE SCOTSMAN

“The entire performance tears up the rulebook in the best possible way. Unreservedly recommended.” ★★★★★ —Roger Thomas, BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE

“Aesthetically and artistically, a jazz version of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is a risky venture. But hats-off to Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra for pulling off this convincing jazz corollary.” ★★★★ —Stuart Nicholson, JAZZWISE

The SNJO consolidated that success throughout 2018 with seasonal concert series featuring the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams and Kenny Wheeler. The year also saw the CD release of a landmark recording, which laid down trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler’s “Sweet Sister Suite" with the help of Laura Jurd on trumpet, Brian Kellock on piano and Irini Arabatzi on vocals. The repertoire took another innovative twist in August when star arranger Florian Ross led the orchestra through his exploratory charts for our “Jazz Re-Imagined" programme, which showcases the art of the arranging.

January 2019 got off to a brisk start in London with a double bill at Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club. The SNJO led by founder/director Tommy Smith welcomed special guests Eddi Reader on vocals and actor Tam Dean Burn to the stage for the latest of their many visits to this prestigious venue. This time, they put jazz fizz into a cocktail of sets that blended the Songs of Scotland with Prokofieff’s Peter & The Wolf and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Eddi Reader is noted for the way that she conveys authentic warmth to the songs of Burns, while Tam Dean Burn’s energetic narration once more brought “Peter" convincingly to life.

The new SNJO concert season continued with an astonishing journey into strange magical realms and extraordinary new adventures in jazz. “Norse Myths" sourced ancient narratives, improvisational instincts and Nordic folk song to create a unique and utterly beguiling experience in modern music.

It was an offering fit for gods and goddesses alike, further enhanced by the presence of European jazz giants: Arild Andersen (bass), Paolo Vinaccia (drums/percussion), and SNJO director Tommy Smith (saxophone). Scottish audiences may have been unfamiliar with the source material of Nordic songs and hymnals, but the melodic elements in these musical portraits clearly signposted a Celtic, Gaelic, or even an Old English connection.

This was not entirely coincidental. “Norse Myths" was a musical quest that illustrated how new ideas may be forged from free exchanges in a common language. Here, the language is jazz, with a distinctly Nordic accent and Celtic feel.

Stepping into spring 2019, the SNJO put together another “opposites attract" programme of concerts, which were much more than the sum of their parts. The music of Antonio Carlos Jobim on the one hand and Fats Waller on the other offered two very different takes on feelgood jazz. The shows opened with orchestral interpretations of Jobim’s comforting melancholia and concluded with Waller’s imperturbable optimism. Once more, pianist Brian Kellock featured alongside vocalist Irini Arabatzi with Mario Caribe on bass in arrangements provided by Bill Dobbins.

There is no corner of the globe that is too far, or too remote for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra when it comes to flying the flag for Scottish Jazz. In addition to a busy domestic schedule, the summer weeks and months saw them jetting to Japan and the USA.

At the end of May 2019, The SNJO toured to Tokyo and Osaka beginning in Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, continuing on to Hachioji Olympus Hall and finally performing at The Boardroom Jazz Club in Osaka. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra were visiting Japan for the first time, performing their unique versions of “Peter and the Wolf" and the “Carnival of Animals." The Tokyo concert once more featured Makoto Ozone on piano, while Peter and the Wolf was this time narrated in Japanese by local actor Isao Hashizume. At Osaka, they played a rich mix of classic, straight-ahead and contemporary jazz over two nights at the Boardroom.

In June 2019, The SNJO were thrilled to be invited to once more to appear at Rochester's International Jazz Festival and, for the first time, the band played Dizzy's at the Lincoln Centre in New York City. In both cities, they performed ‘Peter and the Wolf’ in our Scots translation by Liz Lochhead with actor Tam Dean Burn returning in the role of the narrator.

Also in June, the SNJO and trumpeter Laura Jurd were reunited for “Sketches of Spain" at the Queen's Hall Edinburgh. The orchestra, featuring Jurd as guest soloist, performed Miles Davis’ iconic “Sketches of Spain" as a compliment to the overarching Spanish theme of the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Now, as I said, there is still more to come. In September 2019, “An American Journey" will see the SNJO reunited with saxophonist Bill Evans for concerts in Scotland that will feature Evan’s articulate vision of a unified musical identity. It will be a road trip to remember as the SNJO and Miles Davis alumnus Bill Evans set off on a musical expedition across America from north to south and east to west as jazz meets bluegrass, soul, country, funk and fusion.

If that’s not enough, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is delighted to welcome Grammy-nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn for three exclusive concerts in November. Jazzmeia joins the SNJO on her first-ever visit to Scotland for a wonderfully eclectic programme of jazz standards and we fully expect to enjoy some memorable nights of outstanding jazz music. This quite extraordinary jazz vocalist is, quite rightly, widely recognized as an astonishing artist who seamlessly assimilates every jazz dialect into a singular, commanding voice.

For more news, updates, or interview requests contact: Tommy Smith or Lindsay Robertson (Orchestra Manager).

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