Paolo Fresu is about as eclectic a modern jazz musician as you could imagine – a superb trumpeter whose pure tone can sound out in mellow duet with American acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner or Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, or deliver honest-to-goodness straight-ahead with his 30-year-old Italian quintet or electric fusion with his Devil Quartet. That’s when he’s not composing and playing music for film, theatre, poets and even mime artists, or collaborating with folk musicians, from his native Sardinia or elsewhere – this is a man, after all, who learned his circular breathing technique from players of the launneddas, the ancient Sardinian triple-reed pipe, yet who counts the great Miles Davis as a cornerstone of his music.
And it is the Miles Davis element that we’re particularly concerned with here, as next week Fresu guests with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, to perform music from two key albums in the Davis canon, Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead, recorded in 1949 and 1957 respectively, marking the onset of the American trumpeter’s powerfully creative relationship with arranger Gil Evans, although baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan also left his stamp on Birth of the Cool.
“It was my milk when I was very young,” says Fresu, with some feeling, about the Miles Davis repertoire. Like Davis, the Italian’s trumpet and flugelhorn playing can combine potent brevity, soul and peerless tone. As an emerging player, Fresu’s two major influences were, he says, Davis and Chet Baker. The difference between them, however, he continues, is that “Chet was a poet, a singer and an incredible player, but Miles was maybe a little bit more than that, he was a genius in music, like Fellini in the movies or Picasso in art… He was so ahead, always…” he laughs, “miles ahead, always pushing the music in new places, one of the most visionary players in the history of jazz.”
Fresu is well acquainted with much of the material he’ll be playing with the SNJO, not least through playing and recording two “philological” arrangements of iconic works by Davis, Porgy & Bess and next week’s Birth of the Cool, the former using transcriptions by the respected American composer, jazz musician and music historian Gunther Schuller (who conducted the SNJO in an Edinburgh Festival concert two years ago). When interpreting such classic jazz repertoire, he says, there are inevitably “questions, questions, questions, and not many answers”.
The big question is, of course, how to maintain a balance between respect for the composer and arranger’s original ideas, without resorting to slavish replication. “Every time I play this music,” says Fresu, “I’m looking to find the best way to get inside it, but the most important thing is not to make it a photocopy. The correct way is to be close to his music, but at the same time still with your own personality.”
Fresu is looking forward to playing with the award-winning Scottish big band, having heard its recent recording on the ECM label, Celebration, with Norwegian bassist Arild Anderson. He’s already played with the SNJO’s artistic director, saxophonist Tommy Smith, in mutual collaboration with Andersen and at the jazz festival Fresu runs in his native Berchidda in Sardinia. “[The SNJO] has a beautiful sound, and I think it can be more or less the same as the Gil Evans sound, because the music comes from there, but every orchestra plays a little bit different because every musician is different.
“In jazz today, we can play a historical performance of something by Gil Evans and Miles Davis, like you might play a Mozart or Beethoven symphony. But every time will be a little different.”
According to the orchestra’s director, Tommy Smith, the major challenge of these concerts will be to recreate the authentic sound and get the acoustic balance right: “You want to make it as acoustic as possible, just as we did for the Ellington thing – not go too heavy with microphones and monitors, but try and balance it with the music itself. It’s actually scored very well, so the main challenge is to try and recreate that authentic acoustic sound, letting the orchestration level out the dynamics for the audience.”
That’s allowing for as many as 22 players on stage for the Miles Ahead arrangements, and a nine-piece for Birth of the Cool, while a further task is in co-ordinating the augmenting classical musicians on French horns, bass clarinets, flute and tuba, to blend in and “play in a jazz-like way with the rest of us”.
Following a year in which the SNJO collected the Best Ensemble accolade in the Parliamentary Jazz awards and Best Big Band prize at the British Jazz Awards, the band is embarking on another busy year in which, following the forthcoming tour, it will celebrate the music of the late Stan Kenton in April, and collaborations are planned with two US saxophone giants, Dave Liebman in June and Branford Marsalis in September. Meanwhile the band’s rip-roaring Duke Ellington celebration, with which it closed last year amid much delighted acclaim, is due for release in album form on the Spartacus label next month.
As for Fresu, he returns to Scotland at the end of April in the company of the flamboyant Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and eclectic Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. Last year Fresu and Sosa cut an album together, Alma, a relatively mellow fusion of Fresu’s spare, sometimes distinctly Milesean tones and Sosa’s Afro-Latin-American keyboard questing and electronic sampling, as well as contributions from cellist Jaques Morelenbaum. Things may sound rather more explosive, Fresu suggests, when he and Sosa are joined on stage by Gurtu (for dates, see www.j-word.co.uk).
Fresu is a great believer in the old adage about there being just two kinds of music, good and bad. Whether he’s blowing with the mighty forces of the SNJO, with his own bands, or collaborating, as he did on the ECM album Mistico Mediterraneo, with the Corsican vocal polyphony group A Filetta, “the most important thing,” he says, “is that we are always honest with ourselves, that we keep the sound of our own voice.”
• Paolo Fresu and the SNJO play the Caird Hall, Dundee, on 21 February; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 22 February; Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, 23 February; and the MacRobert Centre, Stirling, 24 February. For further information, see www.snjo.co.uk