Scottish saxophone group revel in diverse ‘singing’

IT was Stan Getz who once said, “If you like an instrument that sings, play the saxophone.” Sue McKenzie would agree: ask her to identify the common denominator among the musicians of the Scottish Saxophone Ensemble, which she leads, and she says: “It doesn’t matter to me what their background is; it’s just ‘Do they sing when they play?’”

The potential of four saxophones played by eclectically-minded musicians whose concert programmes may include anything from Philip Glass to Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory is captured on their debut album, Mrs Malcolm, which opens with quartet member and composer Richard Ingham’s rumbustious take on Scottish traditional music, the titular Mrs Malcolm, Her Reel (which boasts the delectable subtitle of Funky Freuchie).

Launched at a packed gig at Summerhall as part of the Fringe’s Made in Scotland showcase, the album takes in a mix of material that would confound any pigeonholer – the silky-toned tango of Roberto Di Marino’s Quartetto II, Paquito D’Rivera’s jazz-informed New York Suite, or the medieval round of Sederunt.

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“It’s lovely to work with people who don’t have boundaries and are happy to work outside their comfort zone,” says McKenzie, delighted to be interrupted from “practising very high notes on soprano sax”. “If I’m listening to music, it’s not just to classical or just to jazz,” she says. “I go from one to another in a breath.”

Breath, of course, is what the ensemble is all about, four reed players from diverse backgrounds, bonded by an interest in contemporary music. McKenzie, classically trained like her colleagues, also plays with Salsa Celtica and recently recorded an album of British contemporary music for sax and piano, The Coral Sea, for Delphian with pianist Ingrid Sawyers; Ingham is musician-in-residence at the University of St Andrews; Mike Brogan’s credits include the Spolkestra art-pop collective, while Tim Watson is a former Royal Marines bandsman.

The quartet was at the heart of last year’s 16th World Saxophone Congress, which unleashed hundreds of horn players on St Andrews. Ingham was the event’s director, assisted by McKenzie and Brogan. It was a confirmed success, even if it did leave them exhausted. “We’ve had fantastic feedback from it,” she says. “St Andrews was absolutely the right place to have it, and you had a core of organisers who really cared.” McKenzie is similarly enthusiastic about her quartet Dark Grooves, an atmospheric-sounding combination which made its debut at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz festival. “I’m desperate to get into some more writing for it,” she says. In the meantime, though, it’s back to practising soprano sax.

• Mrs Malcolm is on Largo Music,