For a three-day tour which culminates at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on International Jazz Day, 30 April, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra could hardly have chosen to revisit two landmark recordings as iconic as Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Both albums saw the trumpeter working with the arranger Gil Evans, an inspired partnership which couched Davis’s increasingly modal approach amid tonally sumptuous arrangements for large jazz orchestra (accordingly, the SNJO will enlist augmented brass and woodwind). Porgy and Bess, recorded in 1958, was based on George Gershwin’s ground-breaking folk opera, and included interpretations of such enduring numbers as Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So; while 1960’s Sketches of Spain famously reworked the adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez to smouldering effect, other highlights including the inexorable, bolero-like advance of Solea.
The SNJO covered both albums with Gerard Presencer early in its history. This time around, the now internationally celebrated orchestra features another guest trumpeter, plus a stalwart of their own, with Sketches being fronted by the acclaimed young player Laura Jurd, currently a BBC New Generation Artist, while Porgy and Bess turns the spotlight full on the SNJO’s longest-standing member (along with founder-director Tommy Smith), Tom MacNiven.
Glasgow-based MacNiven is well used to stepping out from the ranks to blow a purposeful solo, but how does he feel about donning the mantle of Miles? “I’m feeling quite good about it,” he responds. “I’ve been studying the music extensively. But it is a bigger step, definitely, from what I’ve been used to up until now.”
Asked how much leeway he has to do his own thing with such iconic music, he remarks that he asked Smith much the same thing. “Tommy said I should just do what I feel about it, and we noted that when we did it with Gerard Presencer, in the first of the three concerts he played it as Miles did, note for note; second night he did it half his own and half Miles; and the last night he did it all his own way. What I’ll do is outline what I think are the important parts of Miles’s improvisations, then stylistically match them with my own take.”
Like most jazz trumpeters, MacNiven, 42, regards Davis as “almost too great an influence to try and put into words. Each classic trumpet player – Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard etc – brings a different thing to what they do, but Miles, over his 40-odd-year career, kept changing his style, and in terms of influence you have to look at all of that.”
At 26, Laura Jurd has established quite a reputation for herself as a player and composer of such quirky and spectacular material as Alt Punk, commissioned for last year’s London Jazz Festival and recently broadcast on Radio 3, featuring her quartet, Dinosaur, with the BBC Concert Orchestra. As someone who comfortably straddles both jazz and contemporary classical worlds, you might say that in Sketches she’s taking on a jazz classic based on a classical classic (although it wasn’t until the huge success of the Davis-Evans record that classical labels started looking with interest at Rodrigo’s original, recordings of which had hitherto been thin on the ground).
“It’s wonderful to be playing the part that Miles Davis played,” she says from her home in Kent. “With something as iconic as that, the challenge is to make it your own as well as channelling its original spirit and energy.”
Jurd is half Scottish, her mother hailing from Edinburgh, so she makes frequent visits, not least with Dinosaur at January’s Celtic Connections, This, however, is her first live gig with the SNJO: “It’s nice to put on a different hat and not to be playing music that I’ve written. And playing with a large ensemble is always thrilling.” ■
*The SNJO play Perth Concert Hall on 28 April; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 29 April; Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 30 April. See www.snjo.co.uk