As the much missed Edwin Morgan liked to remind us, there are “other realities”. Tommy Smith, tenor saxophonist and director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, knows these words well, having worked with the late Makar on several occasions, with both the orchestra and smaller groups – notably in the poem cycle Planet Wave with the SNJO, and in 1996’s Beasts of Scotland, which Smith recorded with a quintet.
Now Smith is recruiting other poets as well as traditional musicians, to tap into the alternative realities of Scottish folklore and conjure up new beasts, this time of the imaginary kind, for Tales of the Tribe, which the SNJO is touring to Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. The project combines the SNJO with such eminent folk names as Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, fiddler Megan Henderson, flautist Michael McGoldrick and accordionist Phil Cunningham, and has commissioned new poems from Scots, Shetland and Gaelic poets Christine De Luca, Tom Pow, Meg Bateman and Peter MacKay, all of whose work will be read by the show’s narrator, actor Blythe Duff.
Smith is a fan of all four poets, having worked with some of them in the past, and between them they have devised a mythical bestiary that ranges from the fey to the darkly scary. Starting with an initial list of some three dozen supernatural entities, Smith honed it down to 12, ranging from the totemic fairy hill of Schiehallion to the ghastly figure of Redcap, who “could bite, he could stab, could run through or strangle / His eyes were as red as the blood on his cap …”
“They’re dealing with things that are pretty scary, but to have enlightenment, you’ve got to have different shades and mood, but the music is very uplifting,” says Smith, who was still writing the music at the time of our interview, and had been going over ideas with the award-winning singer Julie Fowlis.
For her part, Fowlis has always nursed a fascination with creatures of the other world. “These characters and belief systems reveal a lot about our past and those who have gone before,” she says. “Gaelic songs concerned with the supernatural often have outstanding melodies and stories, so it’s no wonder they have lasted the test of time.”
Smith has worked with traditional musicians for many years and isn’t averse to slipping Burns song, Gaelic psalm or other folk material into his memorable solo saxophone recitals. It is quite a challenge, he agrees, to combine these musicians with a jazz orchestra: “It’s my job to be the architect here. We’ll be highlighting these musicians’ skills and spontaneity on accordion, whistle, fiddle, flute and more to create a natural bond between traditional music and jazz.
“But I’m not treating the SNJO as a big band here, just treating it like an orchestra that has rhythm and texture. Then I’ve got my little group within that with Alyn Cosker, Kevin Glasgow and Pete Johnstone [drummer, bassist and pianist respectively], which is an integral part of the machine.”
Set against the ghaisties and ghoulies of Tales of the Tribe, the SNJO can be a formidable – and shape-shifting – entity in its own right, as amply demonstrated by its new double album, Where Rivers Meet, which captures to potent effect the big band’s collaboration with the Edinburgh-based Russian real-time painting artist Maria Rud, amid the sonic magnificence of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Where Rivers Meet revisits the free-jazz heroes of the 1950s and Sixties – Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman and Anthony Braxton. Showcasing particularly the big band’s saxophonists – Paul Towndrow, Konrad Wiszniewski, Martin Kershaw and Smith himself, this is music firmly rooted in jazz’s fundamental improvising credentials, but generating a viscerally powerful magic of its own.
Tales of the Tribe is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 12 May, Aberdeen Music Hall on 13 May and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 14 May, www.snjo.co.uk