Review: SNJO: The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh. Picture: Neil Hanna

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh. Picture: Neil Hanna

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THE Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s latest programme marked two notable anniversaries – the band’s 20th and the centenary of Billy Strayhorn’s birth.

SNJO: The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

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A celebration of Strayhorn’s composing and arranging genius would have looked very different at the beginning of the SNJO’s two decades, when he was known as Duke Ellington’s right-hand man and writer of a handful of his own classics, including the irresistible Chelsea Bridge, Rain Check, Isfahan, Blood Count – written as he died of cancer in 1967 – and his most famous work, Lush Life, represented in duet form by Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock, since no Strayhorn band arrangement exists. All were heard here, alongside a selection of his writing for the Ellington Orchestra, much of it published under the leader’s name. They opened with the best known of his many tunes for the Duke, Take the A Train, and visited four sections from their Peer Gynt Suite (Duke arranged the fifth, and Smith was trying to focus squarely on Strayhorn).

The big change from a similar concert 20 years ago is that much previously unpublished and unheard music by Strayhorn was found in the 1990s by Dutch musicologist Walter van de Leur, a guest conductor of the SNJO in 2003. Strayhorn’s adventurous harmonies, original textures and innovative use of instrumental timbre made for a memorable revisiting of these discoveries, and the musicians of this great band did full justice to the composer’s music and memory.

Seen on 20.02.15

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