The past few years have seen the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra consolidate their international status and eclectically adventurous repertoire, having their sweet way with a Mozart piano, deconstructing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, collaborating fruitfully with American singers and Scandinavian bassists and, just this month, releasing yet another live concert album, this time recorded with US jazz-fusion saxophone hero Bill Evans. As they approach the end of their 20th anniversary year, this weekend past, however, saw them celebrating the legacy of one of modern jazz’s greatest game-changers in The Legend of Charlie Parker.
Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: The Legend of Charlie Parker ****
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Widely regarded as the man who lit the blue touch paper for the bebop revolution, saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker left a clutch of inventively sophisticated tunes that are constantly revisited by players, not least the SNJO which, for this project, eschewed their usual practice of featuring a guest artist, instead well and truly demonstrating their collective and individual talents to powerful effect.
An opening and energetically upbeat workout with Moose the Mooche suggested a no-nonsense statement of intent, as a succession of band members, including their musical director, saxophonist Tommy Smith, stepped up to the plate for some full-on soloing. It was followed by Parker’s Mood, which opened with a gloriously dissonant fanfare before subsiding into slinky brushwork from drummer Alyn Cosker, a stealthy double bass riff from Calum Gourlay, over which sounded big brass choruses and an elegantly bluesy solo from trombonist Chris Greive.
While some of the arrangements had been commissioned, as is the SNJO’s habit, from the likes of Geoffrey Keezer and Florian Ross, there were some impressive arrangements from band members themselves, such as Martin Kershaw’s treatment which brought a noir-ish dramatic tension to Parker’s Anthropology, with pianist Pete Johnstone’s sonorously rolling piano verging on the gothic.
There was at times a certain cinematic sweep, too, in an allusive arrangement of My Little Suede Shoes, with its masterly build-up and a lithe and increasingly aggressive tenor sax break from Smith.
There was, of course, the supercharged dance hall bounce of the Yardbird Suite, with fine solos from Kershaw on sax and from the recently joined young trumpeter Sean Gibbs, who is making his mark, not least with his own, punchy arrangement of Drifting on a Reed, with its crisp dialogue between trumpets and trombones. Elsewhere, we got the frantic dash of what has become a saxophonist’s rite of passage, Donna Lee, as well as a rumbustious arrangement by Greive of the classic Ornithology, led off by saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and featuring some ebullient keyboard cascades from Johnstone.
As the orchestra closed with Confirmation, with Kershaw and trumpeter Lorne Cowieson sounding over its slick time-changes, and Gourlay’s bass murmuring against quietly muted trumpets, one couldn’t help thinking, listening to these tonally rich and inventive treatments of Parker’s legacy, how much more he might have created had he lived beyond his tragically short 35 years.