Music review: SNJO Tales of the Tribe, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Bringing together the worlds of jazz, folk and poetry, the The SNJO’s Tales of the Tribe project was a triumph, writes Jim Gilchrist

Tommy Smith: PIC: Aldo Ferrarello
Tommy Smith: PIC: Aldo Ferrarello

SNJO Tales of the Tribe, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh *****

Saxophonist Tommy Smith’s latest ploy for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra he directs was a beguiling one, in every sense.

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Recruiting four stalwarts of the traditional folk world – Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, flautist and piper Michael McGoldrick, accordionist Phil Cunningham and fiddler Megan Henderson – he wrote them into big-band arrangements inspired by the goblins, mermaids and other creatures of Scottish folklore.

These often terrifying entities were evoked by poems commissioned from Meg Bateman, Tom Pow, Christine De Luca and Peter McKay, read by actor Blythe Duff. They came couched in soundscapes frequently as unnerving as the tales themselves, penduluming between the folk quartet’s lightsome jigs and reels, Fowlis’s beautifully delicate singing and the full-blown jazz forces.

The SNJO could generate a mellow background drift of woodwind and brass, or a dark and stealthy swing, before erupting into horror movie mode as the nightmarish Redcap claimed another victim or a mermaid dragged some hapless seafarer into the depths.

A winsome Gaelic air from Fowlis might be taken up by Smith on tenor sax, or a theme on McGoldrick’s uilleann pipes born off by powerhouse drummer Alyn Cosker. The Dragon of the Islands, for instance, saw a lovely fiddle and pipes air progress over rasping bass trombone to a fierce climactic trumpet duel between James Copus and Christos Stylanides. There was fiery saxophone sparring, too, between Smith and Konrad Wiszniewski prompted by the enchantress-hag Glaistig.

Sometimes, though, these otherworldly entities could cast a wan eye on our own cruelties, Meg Bateman’s Water Horse bitterly citing “your cannon, gunpowder and bayonet”. And special mention must go to Blythe Duff, who reflected the brilliance of the music by imbuing her readings with clarity, wit and often sanguinary relish.