THE ebullient grooves of funk-inflected American West Coast jazz may seem a far remove from the bleak, battle-haunted mosses of Culloden Moor, but the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra takes them both in its rangy stride this month.
Next weekend sees the SNJO embark on yet another of its short collaborative tours, this time with guest Bob Mintzer, saxophonist with Grammy-winning US fusion outfit the Yellowjackets, which for the past three decades has developed its own brand of infectiously melodic funk – and R&B-informed jazz. And this past week saw the Scottish big band launch its studio recording of the powerfully atmospheric Culloden Moor Suite, featuring its composer, veteran Scots tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins.
SNJO director Tommy Smith promises plenty of “warmly rhythmic” Yellowjackets numbers next weekend, though delivered with full SNJO muscle. Smith describes Mintzer’s music as “characterised by a superbly engaging melodic streak, tremendous feel, and a deep knowledge and experience of contemporary jazz”.
Neither he nor the band have played with Mintzer previously, although the American is on the SNJO roster of arrangers, and he’s written an orchestration of the tune Civil War, a steadily advancing and inexorably “beaty” number from the Yellowjackets’ current album, A Rise in the Road, for the forthcoming gigs.
It was another civil war, more specifically its bloody conclusion in 1746, which inspired Bobby Wellins to write his Culloden Moor Suite more than 50 years ago, after being inspired by John Prebble’s book about the battle. It’s only now, however, that a recorded version is available. Three years ago the SNJO toured this powerful work with Wellins, then decided to go into the studio with it. Wellins is now 78, but sounding great, according to Smith, who cites the older saxophonist as a major influence. “All the critics think I get my sound from Stan Getz, but they’re completely wrong. I get my high, fluty sound from Bobby Wellins. Stan Getz couldn’t do that; his sound had too much vibrato and still wasn’t as pure as Bobby’s.”
Smith has described Culloden Moor as “a sleeping giant of jazz”. In its five movements – the gathering, the march, the battle, the aftermath and the epilogue – the massed ranks of the SNJO evoke the battle with appropriate sonic mayhem, including a multi-tracked snare solo that makes drummer Alyn Cosker sound like an entire drum corps. Some of its emotive keening echoes the kind of hauntingly floating tones with which Wellins came to fame back in 1965, with his wonderfully nocturnal-sounding solo in Stan Tracey’s groundbreaking suite Under Milk Wood.
Originally written for quartet, Culloden Moor has been orchestrated by another of the SNJO’s arrangers, German Florian Ross. “He had a few samples of live performances of it that Bobby had taped,” says Smith. “He’s augmented the main themes and written a great orchestration. He also read up on the history to get a sense of what it was about and was quite shocked at some of the butchering.”
When I interviewed Wellins prior to the SNJO tour in 2011, he recalled standing on Drumossie Moor, as Culloden was originally known, in the 1980s, the morning after his band had played the suite. It was, he suggested, prickly-neck-hair time. Culloden is that sort of place.
• The SNJO plays the Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, on 26 September; Caird Hall, Dundee, 27 September; and the Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow, 28 September. See www.snjo.co.uk
Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock play the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, tonight.