Folk, jazz etc: Tommy takes riches passed down by the Duke out to the nation
TOMMY Smith never met Duke Ellington. The legendary pianist, composer and band-leader, who drew no distinction between jazz and so-called “art” music, died in 1974, but Scottish saxophonist Smith did get the chance to play with some of Ellington’s associates in 1999 when he was recruited by Swiss bandleader Fritz Renold for an Ellington tribute orchestra featuring several of the Duke’s former players.
Smith, then 32, found himself rubbing shoulders with such distinguished old Ellingtonians as trombonists Buster Cooper and Britt Woodman, and bassist Aaron Bell.
“I was asked to take the tenor chair once occupied by Paul Gonsalves, which was pretty challenging,” Smith recalls, “but it was really great working with these incredible characters and I heard a lot of stories, straight from the horse’s mouth, about Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and who composed what.”
At one point Smith was playing a Strayhorn number, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, “and one of the guys came up to me and said, ‘That’s not the way Strayhorn played it.’ There was one note that was wrong – the books had it written down wrong, but because he had played with Strayhorn he knew the right note.” Smith laughs: “So I learned it and that’s how I teach it.”
Such rubbed-off insight should prove useful when Smith leads the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, of which he is director, later this month to present Ellington: In the Spirit of the Duke, with the inimitable Brian Kellock taking the ducal role on piano.
The orchestra has played Ellington frequently in the past but not for a good few years, says Smith, “so the music will be fresh because we don’t play it all the time, but our approach will be very classic. The hard thing is deciding on repertoire; there is so much of it.”
Smith shies clear of the word “cram”, but does promise as much Ellington material as possible, ranging from such classics as Black and Tan Fantasy, Mood Indigo and Such Sweet Thunder to less widely played material like Strayhorn’s arrangement of Morning Mood from Edvard Greig’s Peer Gynt.
The highly regarded Kellock has already proved his mettle with the SNJO, both playing Ellington and as soloist in the band’s critically acclaimed rearrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. An engagingly maverick player who is also very at home handling classic repertoire, will he try to recreate such revered music or can he still do his own thing?
“Ellington was pretty quirky in his style,” says Kellock, “so it’s not a thousand miles away from the stuff I do. I’ll just play the way I play – I can’t copy Ellington, because he was so good. The band will be tied down with their charts, ensemble-wise, but I’ll just try to get the spirit of Ellington. It’ll be great fun.”
The Ellington tour is the latest exercise in what has been an eventful year for the SNJO. Following successful tours with drummer Peter Erskine and trumpeter Randy Brecker, the orchestra scooped the Best Ensemble category in May’s Parliamentary Jazz awards and was nominated in the Scottish Jazz Awards, as well as enjoying a rapturous reception at the Jazz sous les pommiers festival in Normandy, further consolidating its international stature.
At the same time, its future was clouded by proposed funding cuts by Creative Scotland, although subsequent discussions opened the way to possible new funding routes. Smith expects to hear this month what that funding might be.
He hints at ambitious plans for the orchestra between now and 2015, but they all hinge on funding. “Then we’ll see whether we can go from strength to strength and continue our journey.”
• The SNJO plays Perth Theatre on 24 October, Aberdeen Music Hall on the 25 October, the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on the 26 October, the Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow, on 27 October and Eden Court, Inverness, on 28 October. For details see www.snjo.co.uk
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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