It has collaborated with Scots poets and Japanese taiko drummers, and mixed it with some of the greatest names in the contemporary jazz world. Having established an international reputation as a world-class outfit, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is jubilantly celebrating its 20th birthday, but the road hasn’t always been an easy one, as its director, saxophonist Tommy Smith, points out.
The band takes the stage yet again next weekend, further consolidating its big band credentials by celebrating the legacy of one of the greatest jazz arrangers and composers, Billy Strayhorn, the pivotal figure behind much of Duke Ellington’s best known work, such as Take the A Train, Lush Life and the film score for Anatomy of a Murder, yet a man whose reputation has tended to remain in his band-leader’s shadow.
The SNJO’s 20th birthday celebrations will continue in May with a renewal of its potent collaboration with the Grammy award-winning vocalist Kurt Elling, this time with a “Swing Sinatra” programme, while in June the band teams up with Eddi Reader to tour a new suite of Scottish song arrangements, Alba.
Recent years have seen the orchestra collect an enviable cornucopia of critical acclaim for its live performances, often in the company of international jazz heroes such as guitarist John Schofield, vibes virtuoso Gary Burton, former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Arild Andersen and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Its albums, including the New York-recorded American Adventure, its Ellington celebration In the Spirit of the Duke and its revival of Scots saxophonist Bobby Wellins’s Culloden Moor Suite, have gleaned similar plaudits. It has ventured into adventurous territory with such cross-discipline ventures as Planet Wave with the late national makar Edwin Morgan, and the unlikely sounding but ultimately triumphant World of the Gods show with the Mugenkyo Taiko drummers.
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Ask Tommy Smith for his own highlights and he responds: “The collaborations which on paper seemed impossible and idiotic,” citing in particular the Mugenkyo Taiko project. He also recalls getting a kick out of watching the SNJO’s musicians recording American Adventure in New York’s Avatar studios with US giants like David Liebman, Bill Evans and Mike Stern. “I’d recorded in that studio many times, but to see these guests come in, all big stars, and see the reactions of our musicians – I got a buzz out that.”
Things weren’t always so rewarding. Smith describes the band’s first decade or so as a hand-to-mouth existence, with “three lean, formative years before we received our first major support in 1998”. Matters weren’t helped by a year-long legal dispute over the band’s name. Smith, quite apart from maintaining his own career and teaching commitments had to arrange the gigs, prepare the music, and – crucially – chase up financial support. After further Scottish Arts Council funding in 2010 the band was finally able to appoint a manager.
And finance remains an issue, although, says Smith, “every year we’re supported a little bit better than the previous year. We’re very happy that Creative Scotland has got us funding for the next three years”.
In a recent press release marking the band’s double decade, Smith, while suggesting that the SNJO’s ongoing release of its concert recordings will “let the listening world ... hear how far we’ve come”, adds, “but in my heart I know how far we’ve yet to travel.”
Ask him to elaborate and he points out that compared to other European big bands, the SNJO is right at the bottom so far as infrastructure is concerned.
“We have a symbiotic relationship with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland [where Smith leads the jazz degree course]; we get to rehearse there and in exchange students can come to rehearsals and get free tickets for our shows. We bring guests to the RCS and that makes it more economical for them to pay for master classes. But most other jazz orchestras in Europe have their own premises.”
Also, he adds, most big bands will spend at least five days in rehearsal, while the SNJO crams its rehearsals into an intensive two days, with Smith sending the arrangements out in advance.
“So we’re miles behind if we compare ourselves with other European jazz orchestras, but not musically. What we haven’t skimped on is the quality of what we do.”
• The SNJO brings The Jazz Genius of Billy Strayhorn to the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 20 February, the Buccleuch Centre, Langholm, on 21 February and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, on 22 February. See www.snjo.co.uk