Encyclopaedia prompts SNJO-Kurt Elling collaboration

Vocalist Kurt Elling performs at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival. Picture: AFP
Vocalist Kurt Elling performs at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival. Picture: AFP
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You can thank the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the latest collaboration between the SNJO and Kurt Elling

Saxophonist Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra he directs have never been loath to engage with big ideas as well as big musical works: witness their recordings of Torah, Smith’s suite inspired by the creation narratives shared by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, or of his expansive jazz reworking of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Likewise, the art of Grammy-winning American jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, with whom the orchestra opens its 2014 concert season later this month, is informed by a deep interest in philosophy and poetry.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the Elling-SNJO concert programme, which opens in Perth on 21 February and plays over subsequent nights in Edinburgh and Glasgow, is titled Syntopicon, a term which may have most of us diving for our dictionaries, but which, in short, means a collection of topics or, as the band’s promotional blurb suggests “a grab-bag of ideas”.

The programme notes list headings such as “Knowledge/Wisdom,” “Good and Evil,” “Love/Beauty,” categorising a playlist including Paul Simon’s American Tune (“Knowledge/Wisdom”), Wayne Shorter’s Go (“Good & Evil”), with lyrics by Elling, Somewhere, from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (“Love/Beauty”) and the ultimate concept of “Idea/God” represented by 3 Views of a Secret, by the late, maverick bassist Jaco Pastorius.

The idea of matching such weighty concepts to music has been with Smith for two decades, he explains. Back in the 1990s, he was moved to purchase Encyclopædia Britannica’s collection, Great Books of the Western World, a summary of key writings, from Plato and Socrates to Darwin, Melville and Marx. “Along with them, came a two-book index to these ideas called The Syntopicon, with around 100 of these ideas, all cross-referenced.”

Smith found himself delving into it when composing numbers such as the hard-driving Cause and effect, on his Karma album, and it seemed a natural place to return to for the forthcoming collaboration with 
Elling, whom Smith acknowledges as “a scholarly guy”. They started analysing song lyrics to establish what headings they might fit, with Elling, a master of vocalese – the art of writing and singing lyrics to fit an established instrumental solo – sometimes composing fresh lyrics, as in the case of Go or another Wayne Shorter classic, Speak No Evil. This involved no little debate between saxophonist and singer: with Somewhere, Smith recalls, “Kurt thought it should go under “Love and Beauty”, while I thought it also came under “Fate”.”

Elling may be the kind of poet-philosopher-singer who can write what must be the only jazz number that name-checks Descartes (Samurai Cowboy, from his Gate album), but he is also a singer of formidable range, technique and emotive power, who topped Downbeat magazine’s critics poll for best jazz vocalist 14 years in a row. His previous collaborations with the SNJO have been memorable.

The Elling concerts kick off an SNJO 2014 programme which should ensure a joyful spring, with a John Coltrane tribute with London sax star Courtney Pine at the end of March, while April sees the band hit Gateshead to present a Jazz Toons programme of classic cartoon music with singer Jacqui Dankworth. Later in April the orchestra returns to Scottish concert halls with the superb Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone, whose musical associations with Smith go way back, for a performance of Smith’s re-working of Rhapsody in Blue as well as the intriguing prospect of Ozone’s re-writing of Mozart’s 9th piano concerto for soloist and jazz orchestra.

Such are the delights to come. For the moment, just in case you’re worrying from the above that band members are liable to set their instruments aside for a spot of existentialist debate, think again, and listen to their new album, American Adventure (Spartacus Records), a powerful showcase of what this internationally acclaimed big band can do.

Recorded over two days last summer in New York’s renowned Avatar Studios, during an eventful North American tour, the album sees the SNJO performing with stellar American jazz names including trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mike Stern, reedsmen David Liebman and Bill Evans and vibraphonist Joe Locke, as well as Elling, whose album rendition of Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love they’ll reprise during the Syntopicon concerts.

This is the band more than holding its own with the very best, delivering adventurous yet immensely satisfying and tonally and dynamically vivid settings of compositions by the likes of Ellington, Shorter, Coltrane and Chick Corea, arranged for the orchestra by such eminent practitioners as Fred Sturm, Geoffrey Keezer and Smith himself. The band churn along like a massive machine, reminiscent of Weather Report, alongside Mike Stern’s delectably howling guitar in Splatch, Smith’s sax twining with easy sinuousness around Elling’s honeyed baritone in Sound of Love, or the hurricane of Bill Evans’s tenor sax and David Kikoski’s piano in Corea’s Quartet No 1.

The project was, says Smith, “inspiring for all concerned. We pulled it off in just two days with our guests, live – not like those overdub sessions where the musicians don’t record together. You put in the work and you get the results and you can’t go wrong when you use top-rate people and studios. I feel great about it.”

Smith has another album due out in April, this time in duet with the ebullient Scots pianist Brian Kellock. Titled Whispering of the Stars, it trawls from the American and European songbooks and is what he calls “a simple but truthful record”. They’ll be touring as a duo during the year.

In the meantime, the unstoppable force that is the SNJO is constrained only by cash. “Our reputation is very good, but from a funding perspective, we’re just not in the same ball park.” When the SNJO manager goes to meet with other major European jazz orchestras with whom they’re on a par musically, “we’re the lowest in terms of funding, and miles below the next lowest.”

Yet, as Elling declares in tribute to the Scots band, “They hold themselves to the highest standards of musicianship and perform new music and classic charts with ingenuity and verve. I am a fan!”

Kurt Elling and the SNJO play Perth Concert Hall on 21 February, the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 22 February and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, on 23 February. See www.snjo.co.uk