“In the Spirit of Duke” – (TrackList follows) – Scottish National Jazz Orchestra/ Tommy Smith – Spartacus STS017, 72:50 *****:
(Tommy Smith – tenor sax & director; Brian Kellock – piano; Ruaraidh Pattison – lead alto & sop. sax, clarinet; Martin Kershaw – lead clarinet & alto sax; Konrad Wiszniewski, alto & tenor sax, clarinet; Bill Fleming, alto & bari. sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Ryan Quigley, Cameron Jay, Tom MacNiven & James Marr – trumpets; Chris Greive & Phil O’Malley – trombones; Michael Owers – bass trombone; Calum Goulay – doublebass; Alyn Cosker – drums)
GERSHWIN-SMITH: Rhapsody in Blue – Brian Kellock, piano/ Scottish National Jazz Orchestra/ Tommy Smith – Spartacus ST5013, 53:58 ***:
(Martin Kershaw – clarinet, alto sax; Paul Towndrow – alto sax; Tommy Smith, Konrad Wiszniewski – tenor saxes; Bill Fleming – baritone sax; Ryan Quigley, Paul Newton, Tom MacNiven, Linsey McDonald -trumpets; Chris Greive, Michael Campbell, Michael Owers – trombones; Lorna McDonald – bass trombone; Graeme Scott – guitar; Brian Kellock – piano; Calum Gourlay – doublebass; Alyn Cosker – drums)
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra was founded in 1995 and currently is considered by many to be Europe’s foremost contemporary big band, sort of following in the footsteps of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and others. Led by saxist Tommy Smith, they toured the Duke Ellington program in 2012. It afforded them an opportunity to get inside Ellington’s soul and present a concert of his music covering many decades of his output, that demonstrated his orchestral genius and provided their audience as authentic an Ellington experience as possible.
Smith tried to duplicate as far as possible the setup of the Ellington Band. He even got some authentic mutes from the U.S. The results on this CD demonstrate the versatility of the Scottish musicians, who have also done Gershwin (see below CD), Weather Report and the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations. In 1999 Smith played for a time in the Ellington Legacy Orchestra in Switzerland, working with several of Ellington’s musicians. Smith also recorded a more lyrical side of Ellington for Linn Records in 1998, which is also a part of In the Spirit of Duke.
The Ellington tribute opens with the classic Black & Tan Fantasy, which Smith based on an Ellington performance given in 1958 in Amsterdam. Brian Kellock is their pianist and mainstay, and he is the soloist in the re-imagining of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. A delicate version of the typical New Orleans funeral march theme is then heard, and the medley arrangement then turns to King Oliver’s Creole Love Call. There are 16 tracks in all, with three of them devoted to movements from Ellington’s Queen’s Suite of 1959, which he wrote and had delivered to Queen Elizabeth following a reception with Her Majesty a year earlier. There are also three movements from Ellington & Strayhorn’s Peer Gynt album, which Norwegian authorities banned when first released, calling it “ugly” and “uninspired.” Stayhorn’s re-harmonisation of Grieg’s “Morning Mood” is quite amazing, calling for great restraint from the ensemble.
Before Take the A Train became Ellington’s theme song, he used Sepia Panorama, which is in this collection. The interesting tune alternates between the blues and 8-bar phrases. Bill Fleming is the capable bari sax soloist. The disc’s big finale is the 14-minute medley of Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue. The two pieces were regarded as separate tunes by Ellington but then Paul Gonsalves came into the pause between the two and tied them together as his thing. He took 27 choruses at Newport in 1956 to make jazz history. This medley is also taken from the Concertgebouw 1958 concert in Amsterdam, and brings the album to a very rousing finish.
This is not just a slightly jazzed-up version of Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue as some have done previously, but a completely new re-imagining by Tommy Smith which takes the super-classic 20th century masterpiece and turns it into a 52-minute essay which fuses jazz and classical styles in ways Gershwin probably never thought of. Smith’s orchestration doesn’t even open with the famous klezmer-inspired clarinet wail at the very beginning, but holds off on that until about eight minutes into the piece.
The SNJO has done re-imaginings of music of Weather Report, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Chick Corea, Miles and Coltrane before, so taking on Gershwin doesn’t seem to be that much of a stretch. The new extended version has come in for criticism in some circles, but I found it nothing less than very interesting, being rather burned out by the traditional Rhapsody in Blue. There are some blues-inspired improvisations by pianist Kellock which seem to have not much to do with Gershwin’s original, but then occasionally he returns to playing actual parts of the piano solos from the original. Most of the original accents are rather heavily underlined in the orchestration. There is also a quote of some material from Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, which of course wasn’t in Rhapsody in Blue before.
This version is certainly not without humor: check out around 18 minutes into it. There’s a most useful time-line in the note booklet, which indicates exactly at what point in the work one hears various of the soloists. The recording was made at the 2006 Edinburgh International Jazz Festival and the audience applause after each solo does begin to get a bit distracting. Also, at the conclusion there are several minutes of audience cheering with a really annoying whistler close to the mic; you’ll want to hit Open on your remote after the music ends.