on 2 September 2010
An outstanding tour de force from Tommy Smith, Brian Kellock and the whole orchestra. Everyone in this talented line-up gets the chance to shine and shine they do. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience on the night it was recorded and the recording more than does it justice. Taking on a classic and transforming it is a potentially dangerous game but this is a triumph on all levels - the ensemble playing is outstanding and the soloists all have something to say. Smith and Kellock leave no musical stone unturned as they progress through the full dynamic range of big band sound with both power and finesse in equal measure. We have Ragtime in Blue, Rhapsody in Rio (or is it Havana?)and just about every jazz genre you could imagine woven into the mix. It is hard to believe that this runs to over 50 minutes as there is variety and interest throughout. Bravo guys!I can't help but think that Mr Gershwin would approve. If you like big band at its best, buy it. This in time will assume classic status of its own.
on 8 June 2011
...To paraphrase the great Frank Zappa. Actually, one of the things the SNJO's rendition of Rhapsody in Blue is, is funny, but we'll get to that later.
For those who don't know anything about this recording or those taking part in it, a little context may help. Scottish sax player Tommy Smith is, it's generally agreed by those who know about these things, one of the finest musicians of his generation. Not only is he a demon sax player and an ambitious and gifted composer, he's also extremely generous in terms of what he's given back to the music. His most conspicuous achievement outside of his own music is the creation of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, arguably the best big band in Europe; since Smith and his collaborators put the thing together, it's been a proving ground and a showcase for some of the finest Scottish jazz musicians. Anyone who deals with Scottish jazz on a regular basis notices the same names coming up over and over again, because the best of the younger generation have all passed through the SNJO at some point or another. (Of the older generation of Scottish jazz musicians, a rather depressing proportion of them are determined to play nothing but the most pedestrian kind of trad; musicians of 40 and under tend to be significantly more eclectic, daring and creative.)
Anyway, it seems that at some point someone suggested to Smith that he might have a go at doing Rhapsody in Blue. Over the next few years, he was too busy to arrange anything but he noticed that one of his musical partners, the pianist Brian Kellock, tended to quote the piece in his own solos with what seemed like increasing frequency. Finally, during a long stopover at Bristol Airport (not, as anyone who's ever spent much time there will testify, the most inspiring place in the world), the two sat down with Gershwin's score and began to figure out what might be done with the old classical-jazz warhorse.
Remember that Rhapsody in Blue is usually performed by symphony orchestras, and it's only fifteen minutes long. Even the first performance was by the non-jazz Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and the only recording made of their rendition, although quaint and with the composer himself at the piano, sounds remarkably stiff to our ears, with nanny-goat clarinets and an almost total lack of swing (except when Gershwin himself is playing). Subsequent recordings, with orchestras, conductors and soloists comfortable with the history and swing of actual jazz (as opposed to Paul Whiteman, who didn't know jazz from a cold fried egg) have confirmed the value of the work as a successful piece of concert music that draws on jazz harmonies and rhythms without actually being jazz itself. (In Ferde Grofé's original arrangement there is no space for soloing, even though Gershwin was by all accounts a pretty good jazz player who improvised a good deal of his own piano part in the premiere.)
Smith took the piece, rearranged it, used elements of it to provide plenty of harmonic bases for soloing, extended it enormously to just under an hour, and the result was premiered at the 2006 Edinburgh International Jazz Festival. This is a recording of that premiere performance. We're lucky to have it, because this band was on fire that night. The swagger and confidence of the SNJO can be measured by the fact that the piece doesn't even begin with the famous clarinet glissando - it's there, but it doesn't happen until about eight minutes in. So before we even get to one of the most famous opening passages in 20th century music, we've been treated to some fantastic solos and the sound of a big band out to rock the house.
In the first few weeks after I bought this album, I listened to it about a dozen times. It pays back, listen after listen. There is fantastically turbulent solo work from Smith himself, but he rightly hands the spotlight to Brian Kellock, whose mastery of many different kinds of piano style, from stride to post-bop, glues the whole performance together (of jazz pianists, only the late Jaki Byard strikes me as having Kellock's command of such a range of historical styles). All the soloists are excellent, but my favourite bit is the fantastically sassy 'Cuban Fantasia' section, in which Smith picks up on some of the suggestions in the original of Latin rhythms and expands them into a ten-minute groove with superb drumming from Alyn Cosker and a honking solo from tenorist Konrad Wisniewski.
I have only recently begun to discover the riches of Scottish jazz, but the SNJO Rhapsody in Blue is a recording that I would put up against anything. The SNJO is a company of brilliant players who play together with the kind of corporate coherence but effortless individuality that you expect from an ensemble like that of Duke or Miles. I can't recommend this album highly enough. If there is only one thing wrong with it, it's that it's all just one track. This is a problem because once you put it on, you won't want to take it off.
on 14 June 2009
Well the man they call Mr Tone has done it again...
Mr Smith as composer and performer and with the aid of good friend Mr Kellock, as well as the outstanding musicianship of the SNJO have placed on CD a breath of fresh air to the world of Jazz. Rhapsody in Blue is Mr Smith's take on the Gershwin classic, and he comes through it with aplomb.
I have been fortunate enough to witness Tommy Smith Live, and I would do so again and again.
I can only suggest that if you have never heard Tommy Smith, or have just cotton on to this Jazz Icon do so now, you will never look back. He has the musical knowledge to take you on a journey, in whatever form of music he wishes it to go, you will be glad that you went with him.
Cannot wait for his new album so I can take another journey into the mind of a legend.