by Ian Mann
July 30, 2012
The imaginative arrangements and superb musicianship put a fresh slant on the chosen material. Smith and particularly Andersen are brilliant throughout.
Arild Andersen / Scottish National Jazz Orchestra Directed by Tommy Smith
(ECM Records ECM 2259 - Bar Code 279 0947)
Arild Andersen - double bass (featured soloist)
Martin Kershaw - clarinet, soprano & alto sax
Paul Towndrow - alto sax
Tommy Smith - tenor sax, flute
Konrad Wiszniewski - tenor sax
Bill Fleming - bass clarinet, baritone sax
Ryan Quigley, Cameron Jay, Richard Iles, Tom MacNiven - trumpets & flugelhorns
Chris Greive, Phil O’Malley, Michael Owers - trombones
Lorna McDonald - bass trombone, tuba
Steve Hamilton - piano
Calum Gourlay - double bass
Alyn Cosker - drums
“Celebration” is one of two recent ECM releases to feature British jazz artists (I’ll be taking a look at John Surman’s new solo recording “Saltash Bells” in due course). The SNJO under the direction of Tommy Smith is a first rate jazz ensemble that includes many of Scotland’s leading jazz musicians, many of them band leaders in their own right.
The SNJO have acquired a considerable reputation for their live collaborations with top flight international guest soloists, I recall seeing them perform with vibraphonist Gary Burton at the 2010 London Jazz Festival. Smith worked with Burton’s group early in his career and more recently he has performed with Norwegian bassist and composer Arild Andersen’s trio appearing on the excellent ECM album “Live At Belleville”. Andersen is one of ECM’s longest serving artists having come to prominence on early albums by saxophonist Jan Garbarek, pianist Bobo Stenson and guitarist Terje Rypdal before going on to make a varied range of albums under his own name over the last four decades. Like Smith, Andersen has also acquired a reputation as a nurturer of young talent, influential trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and saxophonist Tore Brunborg first came to international attention as members of Andersen’s mid 80’s group Masqualero.
The seeds of this collaboration were sown in 2009, the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of ECM Records. To commemorate the landmark in the history of producer Manfred Eicher’s iconic label a number of international tributes and festivals were staged and Smith suggested a collaboration between his trio colleague Andersen and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. As guest soloist Andersen was keen to select melodic material which would sound good on the bass.
In the event the six items chosen could almost be said to be a musical depiction of the history of ECM with compositions from such icons of the label as Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland and Chick Corea. Andersen contributes part of his “Independency Suite”, first recorded by the trio on the “Live At Belleville” album, while the new generation of ECM artists are represented by “Ulrikas Dans” by saxophonist Trygve Seim. All the pieces were arranged specifically for this project with the list of guest arrangers including such illustrious figures as Mike Gibbs, Makoto Ozone and Geoffrey Keezer. The bulk of the solo space is given over to Andersen but Smith also makes substantial contributions as a soloist as well as performing with and directing the ensemble.
The album was recorded live at Stevenson Hall at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow in October 2010 and the programme commences with Dave Holland’s “May Dance” in an arrangement by pianist Christian Jacob, like Smith a former pupil of Gary Burton at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The tune originally appeared on the first Gateway album from 1975 featuring the trio of Holland, guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Holland’s odd meter piece is spikier than much of ECM’s output and was scheduled first at the suggestion of producer Manfred Eicher. It’s certainly an attention grabbing opener, quickly establishing the BIG sound of the SNJO with Smith’s powerful tenor assuming an early prominence with the first solo. A soloist of remarkable fluency Andersen’s own playing is a constant delight. With the ensemble also containing a second bassist in Calum Gourlay the Norwegian is given freedom to explore without being tied down to purely rhythmic duties. In a tightly focussed arrangement the two soloists are spurred on by the dynamic drumming of Alyn Cosker with the bright, punchy playing of the ensemble horns also adding much to the energy of the piece. An excellent high octane beginning, significantly but pleasingly different from much that is to follow.
Next we hear the first, and arguably defining, movement of Jan Garbarek’s “Molde Canticle”, a five part suite that first appeared on Garbarek’s 1990 album “I Took Up The Runes”. I still have the original vinyl and the work is inexplicably and frustratingly split between the two sides of the LP. I don’t suppose it’s an issue in the CD era, however I digress.
The melody of the opening movement is one of Garbarek’s most memorable and in an arrangement by Smith the Orchestra and Andersen do it full justice. Andersen, Garbarek’s one time associate initially picks out the melody on the bass, his tone liquid but resonant. Smith sounds remarkably similar to Garbarek in the moments where the two soloists double up but it’s Andersen’s fluid, melodic, and astonishingly lyrical playing that defines the piece. The orchestra offer sympathetic support and the moments when the whole ensemble play the theme are hugely stirring and add a new dimension to Garbarek’s writing. The controlled power of Cosker’s drumming again impresses.
Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence” is an enduring classic that is perhaps known as the title track of the 1973 début recording by the piano/vibes duet of Corea and Gary Burton. Here the piece is arranged by the Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone, still a regular musical partner of Burton’s. Ozone’s imaginative arrangement sometimes sounds like a concerto for double bass with generous space allowed for the lyrical and melodic soloing of the remarkable Andersen. At other times the delicate subtleties of the arrangement are reminiscent of a tone poem but there are occasional eruptions of full on big band sound. It’s a good example of the dynamic and emotional range the hugely talented SNJO is capable of covering.
Trygve Seim’s “Ulrika Dans” initially appeared on the saxophonist’s highly acclaimed ECM début “Different Rivers” released in 1999. Reworked here by the composer and his long term associate trombonist Oyvind Braekke, Andersen describes the piece as “attractively spacey” but also as “quite a challenge for the big band” due to the additional counterpoint lines the Norwegian duo added to the new arrangement. The piece retains something of the air of mystery established in “Crystal Silence” and opens with an atmospheric duet between Andersen on bass and Cosker displaying an admirable subtlety on gently pattering hand drums. The dialogue continues as the piece develops and is totally engrossing throughout. Smith initially doubles on flute in a delightfully understated band arrangement full of colourful but subtle horn voicings, but later erupts on tenor saxophone as the music takes glorious flight. Finally the piece comes full circle to end with the sound of Andersen and Cosker. Emotionally involving and brilliantly arranged and played this remarkable piece of music is arguably the pick of the album.
Andersen’s own “Independency, Part 4” was first heard on the 2008 trio album “Live In Belleville” (Andersen, Smith and drummer Paolo Vinaccia) and appears here in an arrangement by the now veteran composer, arranger and band leader Mike Gibbs. This is highly appropriate as the spirit of Gibbs and the late, great Gil Evans can be heard in many of the arrangements throughout the album.
The piece gives us a welcome opportunity to hear the talents of Andersen with the bow, he’s a superb arco player who makes judicious use of live looping effects to enhance and layer his sound. Gibbs’ imaginative arrangement gives scope for both Andersen and Smith to be heard extensively and their sparky duet mid tune recalls their collaboration on “Live In Belleville”. There are also joyously rousing big band passages incorporating brilliant solos from Andersen in Smith in a more conventional context.
Finally we hear pianist Geoffrey Keezer’s arrangement of the title track from Keith Jarrett’s 1977 album “My Song” by his “European” Quartet (Jarrett-piano, Garbarek-reeds, Palle Danielsson-double bass, Jon Christensen-drums). As with the earlier “Molde Canticle” the tune is one of the composer’s most memorable and melodic pieces. Jarrett’s lovely, almost child like theme is ideal for Andersen to improvise around, initially with the help of the hitherto little heard SNJO pianist Steve Hamilton. Smith mirrors Garbarek’s role as Andersen plays the melody on the bass in an attempt to “keep to the spirit and the emotional feeling of Keith’s piano playing”, something that he does within the context of Keezer’s imaginative ensemble arrangement. Collectively Andersen, Smith and the SNJO breathe fresh life into one of the most iconic pieces in the entire ECM canon.
I’m not usually a fan of “tribute” albums but this is one of the best of the genre with the imaginative arrangements and superb musicianship putting a fresh slant on the chosen material. Of course many of these compositions are solid gold classics but many of them started out as small group pieces and it’s fascinating to hear them in a different context. Smith and particularly Andersen are brilliant throughout, there aren’t too many bassists around who could maintain the listeners interest as the featured soloist over a whole CD but Andersen is one of them, his fluency and imagination seem to know no bounds and he’s such an intrinsically melodic player. Like so many of the musicians on the ECM roster he has a highly personal, instantly identifiable sound.
Since this album was recorded Smith, Andersen and the SNJO have toured the music in Scotland and played at the Molde and London jazz festivals in 2011. They are apparently looking for further opportunities to present the repertoire to the public. Let’s hope they succeed.
I’ve heard that funding for the SNJO and jazz in Scotland as a whole is under threat with politicians citing the difficult economic climate as an excuse for such Philistinism. Let’s hope this marvellous recording will permeate their perennially cloth ears and force them to think again. The SNJO is a national treasure that has enhanced Scotland’s reputation worldwide and this album, on one of the most prestigious labels in the history of jazz, is the recorded evidence. To be fair some of the politicos have got the meessage with the SNJO being voted “Ensemble of the Year” at the 2012 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.