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Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, “Where Rivers Meet”,  Livestream Series from St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.  Livestream One 12/05/2021.

by Ian Mann

May 13, 2021


The first of a four part livestream series. In this first concert the SNJO pay tribute to the music of Ornette Coleman with featured soloist Paul Towndrow & accompanying visuals by painter Maria Rud.

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, “Where Rivers Meet”,  Livestream Series from St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.

Livestream One 12/05/2021

Formed in 1995 by the saxophonist and composer Tommy Smith the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (hereafter SNJO) celebrated its twenty fifth anniversary in 2020.

To mark this milestone it is currently in the process of screening a four part series of livestream events filmed in the magnificent surroundings of the 12th century St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

The SNJO has regularly worked on ‘special projects’ and has collaborated with leading soloists, composers and arrangers from both sides of the Atlantic, among them pianist Geoffrey Keezer, vocalists Kurt Elling and Jazzmeia Horn, saxophonists Dave Liebman and Courtney Pine, vibraphonist Gary Burton and bassist Arild Andersen.

Their latest project is “Where Rivers Meet”, a celebration of the ‘free jazz’ and ‘new thing’ that emerged in the US during 1960s. It investigates the legacy of four hugely influential Afro-American saxophonist / composers who became leading figures of the movement, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Anthony Braxton and Albert Ayler.

Spread over the course of four consecutive evenings each livestream is dedicated to a single composer, with this inaugural event featuring the music of Ornette Coleman.

Each livestream sees a member of the SNJO taking the role of featured soloist, with tonight’s musician in the spotlight being alto saxophonist Paul Towndrow, a bandleader in his own right with several small group albums and a more recent large ensemble recording to his credit.

Tonight’s performance featured three of Coleman’s best known compositions, “Lonely Woman”, “Peace” and “Broadway Blues”, arranged for Towndrow and the SNJO by Tommy Smith.

Smith has said of the “Where Rivers Meet” performances;
“These concerts are all about expression, the deepest emotion of our inner voice. To reach that space where we summon heart and spirit, the soloists must bare their souls – that was the challenge and the achievement of much of the best of the free jazz of the 1960s and beyond. And that’s what we’re after here.”

In addition to the musical performances these anniversary concerts also have a corresponding visual element. The SNJO has collaborated with the Moscow born, Edinburgh based painter Maria Rud and the concerts see Rud painting in real time in front of the orchestra, with her images projected onto the surface of the stained glass window at the west end of the cathedral. 

Rud’s involvement has its roots in Smith’s love of the visual arts, his 2012 album “Azure” having been inspired by the work of the Catalan artist Joan Miro. He first met Rud in the same year at an event at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Rud subsequently suggested that they work together, having previously collaborated with other musicians as diverse as classical percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and the DJ Dolphin Boy. These collaboration formed part of Rud’s AniMotion series, which saw her works being used for large scale projections in a manner broadly similar to tonight’s event.

Smith, for his part, had previously worked on an audio / visual project with the Scottish painter Alan Davie, this collaboration with Rud therefore representing a very natural development.

Prior to the commencement of the performance the stream featured interviews to camera from both Smith and Rud, with Smith outlining the details of the project, much as described above.

Meanwhile Rud explained that this was the first time that she had worked with jazz musicians and enthused about a musical form that combines the energy of rock with the complexity of classical music before filtering it through the prism of improvisation, with all the freedom that this entails. “Images come to me” she explained, “it’s like dreaming through open eyes”.

Towndrow also spoke, addressing the subject of Coleman’s work, a music that still polarises listeners more than half a century after the release of such landmark recordings as “The Shape of Jazz To Come”. Despite Coleman’s reputation for making ‘difficult’  music Towndrow talked of Coleman’s concentration on the “purity of melody” and of how he looked back as well as forward, with some of his ideas harking back to the polyphony of the early jazz of New Orleans.

For tonight’s performance the SNJO lined up as follows;

Paul Towndrow – alto saxophone (featured soloist)

Martin Kershaw, Tommy Smith, Konrad Wiszniewski, Bill Fleming – reeds

Jim Davison, James Copus, Christos Stylinades – trumpets

Kieran McLeod, Liam Shortall, Michael Owers – trombones

Pete Johnstone – keyboard

Calum Gourlay – double bass

Alyn Cosker – drums

Smith’s arrangement of Lonely Woman” was introduced by Johnstone at the piano and incorporated rich ensemble textures, these interspersed with passages of dissonance. The mournful sound of Towndrow’s unaccompanied alto, its melancholy enhanced by the cathedral’s acoustics, then took over, joined first by bass and drums and eventually by the whole ensemble. The harsh, plaintive cry of Towndrow’s alto embodied the ‘baring of the soul’ of which Smith had spoken.

As the musicians played we also saw Rud at work, deploying brushes, fingers and fabrics, her instantaneous creations being projected onto the stained glass window before being erased and replaced by another. Her artistic influences include Picasso and Chagall plus Russian religious iconography and we saw shadowy human figures that seemed to be a visual depiction of the pain expressed in Coleman’s music, the anguish of the Afro-American struggle that found voice in the Civil Rights movement.

“Peace” featured a lusher ensemble sound but also included more abrasive tonal contrasts with Towndrow’s alto again emerging as an instrument of fierce emotional expression, his expansive solo culminating in a solo saxophone cadenza.

Rud’s visual images included a large white bird, a dove of peace perhaps, or a phoenix from the flames?

The performance concluded with Smith’s rousing arrangement of “Broadway Blues” that featured a blistering alto solo from Towndrow accompanied by the superb rhythm team of Gourlay on double bass and Cosker at the drums, both of whom played a prominent role in the night’s proceedings with Gourlay a particularly forceful presence. The ensemble sections were swinging, joyous and triumphant, culminating in a storming big band style climax, the sheer energy of the piece inducing Rud into a dance at her painting table.

This had been an enjoyable, if sometimes challenging set, that featured some imaginative arrangements from Smith and some excellent playing from the members of the SNJO, and particularly the featured soloist Paul Towndrow.

Rud’s visuals were intriguing and effective, if sometimes a little distracting, and very much attuned to the project.

“Where Rivers Meet” finds the SNJO celebrating their Silver Jubilee in ambitious and uncompromising fashion with the rest of the series scheduled as follows;

Thursday 13/05/2021 – Dewey Redman, featured soloist Konrad Wiszniewski

Friday 14/05/2021 – Anthony Braxton, featured soloist Martin Kershaw

Saturday 15/052021 – Albert Ayler, featured soloist Tommy Smith

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