Skye-high ambition marks out students who make it to NYOS Jazz Summer School

We’re talking about that mercurial essence of jazz – improvisation. “At the core of what we’re looking for is an improvisational instinct,” says Malcolm Edmonstone, pianist, arranger and musical director of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland’s Jazz Orchestra.

Malcolm Edmonstone

This year has seen NYOS celebrate its 40th anniversary, and on the 23rd of this month the application period opens for its jazz summer school, a creative crucible which in recent years has been held on the scenically magnificent campus of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college and cultural centre on Skye.

If the campus, poised above the Sound of Sleat, has helped shape the futures of a healthy crop of young Scots jazz musicians, it has also been the departure point for some notable tours by NYOS Jazz in the company of celebrated guest artists. Earlier this summer, for instance, saw them join with the acclaimed British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed on a tour that kicked off on Skye and ended at the Sligo Jazz Festival, they toured the previous year with beatboxer and sound artist Jason Singh, while a similar jaunt in 2016, this time in the esteemed company of saxophonist Iain Ballamy and singer Lianne Carroll, finished with them giving a BBC Prom concert in the Albert Hall.

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The youngsters of NYOS Jazz – and they can be anything from 12 to 21 – play with professionals and like professionals, in an environment that teaches them, stretches them and nurtures self-confidence. And instilling the ability to improvise is “super-important”, believes Edmonstone, who is also head of jazz at London’s Guildhall School.

“Music that has improvisation at its core kind of transcends jazz,” he says, “and I think it’s great that you might get someone from the folk music tradition that wants to improvise, you can get someone who does hip-hop and they’re already an improviser. I don’t want to miss out on those people.”

Inclusivity and confidence-building are therefore vital to what Edmonstone and Andrew Bain, NYOS Jazz’s principal conductor, do. “If you go down the road of trying to make people into jazz musicians,” Edmonstone observes, “you can lose some of your most talented and potentially fruitful recruits immediately, not because jazz isn’t wonderful music, but because there’s a lot of fear around jazz, and a lot of people have been led to believe at some point that they can’t play it.”

“Jazz education has been like the new kid on the block in existing classical institutions and that’s brilliant, but we have to remember that the elder statesmen and giants of jazz got into this music learning it by ear, they never went to jazz school.”

Students, particularly those from a classical background, may presuppose that sight-reading skills are paramount, but no-one at NYOS is going

to intimidate a young musician springing a complex big band arrangement on him or her without warning, and Edmonstone stresses the importance of also learning by ear. Which brings us back to that fundamental tenet of improvisation – “a life skill”, as he regards it.

The pivotal NYOS Jazz summer school is immersive and full on, with students rising impressively and enthusiastically to the challenge, as can be seen on some of the videos on the NYOS website.

Notable alumni include such award-winning young musicians as vocalist Luca Manning, saxophonists Helena Kay and Ruaridh Pattison, pianist Pete Johnstone, bassist Brodie Jarvie and, still in his teens, Tom Potter, now studying at the Guildhall and 2016’s Young Drummer of the Year.

Another alumnus is Edmonstone himself, having come through the programme in its early days when fellow pianist and educator Richard Michael was at the helm.

At 39, the Perth-born Edmonstone has come a long way since he first became captivated by his church organist father’s Oscar Peterson recordings: “As soon as I heard Night Train, I remember sitting with my tape player and my headphones on far too late at night and writing out the first bit of his solo. I was absolutely hooked.”

His subsequent career has been diverse to say the least, ranging from playing with such jazz aristocracy as Marion Montgomery, Tony Bennett and Jacqui Dankworth, to arranging for Gary Barlow and for the first three series of Strictly Come Dancing. He and NYOS have also worked with Drake Music Scotland, the transformative organisation that enables musicians with disabilities to play, compose and perform.

Between NYOS Jazz and his post at the Guildhall, he finds little time for performing in his own right, but adds: “I’m lucky to be playing and leading from the piano in these big sessions. That really fulfils my artistic need.”

And the end product must be hugely satisfying. As his old mentor, Richard Michael, observed pithily following one NYOS Jazz concert: “That’s not a bunch of kids playing, these are musicians.” Jim Gilchrist

Applications for the NYOS Jazz Summer School open on 23 September. For details and to apply, see www.nyos.co.uk/jazz/jazz-summer-school