The sound of thunder as well as the delicacy of cherry blossom are promised for the latest venture by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, as east meets west in no uncertain fashion in their World of the Gods collaboration with the mighty percussive choreography of the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers.
These formidable assembled forces take the road next weekend, performing at the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, on 26 May, Perth Concert Hall on the 27th, as part of this Year’s Perth Festival of the Arts, and Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on the 28th.
The SNJO first played with Mugenkyo Taiko in 2010 and the tale of their initial encounter is an intriguing one. The jazz orchestra’s director, saxophonist Tommy Smith, has visited Japan three times now, but when he was captivated by a TV documentary about the unique art form and wanted to investigate further, he discovered that Mugenkyo, the UK’s longest established taiko ensemble, were based just a few miles from where he lives in Lanarkshire.
“The documentary was full of choreography, sounds of thunder and delicacy, skill, strength and endurance,” Smith recalls. “I’m always looking for collaborations so I went online searching for taiko groups and found this one in Scotland, so I emailed them and asked if they were interested in meeting. I didn’t know where they were based at that point, so we met in Glasgow, then found out that we were like five miles from each other, which was really weird.
But how do you successfully integrate western jazz, which has developed during the last century or so, with an art form like taiko, which boasts a pedigree stretching back to the eighth century and beyond? That did pose a challenge, Smith agrees: “The first thing we did was go to each other’s concerts. Then I set about transcribing their choreography. We’d be seated quite a lot at the kitchen table and they’d be tapping the rhythms out and I’d be writing them all down.”
Striving to put music to these rhythms, Smith acquired a book of Japanese folk songs and embarked on the lengthy business of transposing them to fit the taiko rhythms. “When I finished the ten pieces, the first step was to get [SNJO drummer] Alyn Cosker in there to see if he could play along with them, because the Taiko drummers aren’t reading music; they just have all this choreography and are playing things they know. He played along and everything seemed to fit. And then we got the orchestra in and that was it” – though not without the SNJO players mastering unfamiliar Japanese scales and gracings.
Taiko is simply Japanese for “drum” and Mugenkyo employ a formidable range of differently sized drums and gongs. Smith promises “the rumble of thunder, but also the sweet fragrance of cherry blossom in this music.”
Indeed, one of the pieces he arranged is the popular Japanese song Sakura – “cherry blossom” – and as well as his saxophone, Smith will occasionally deploy the hauntingly delicate tones of the Japanese shakuhachi flute.
The Mugenkyo-SNJO gig at Perth Concert Hall is just one of a broad diversity of performances featuring in the ongoing Perth Festival of the Arts, running from 18-27 May, and there’s jazz of a different kind when award-winning singer-violinist Seonaid Aitken and her quintet present the Hot Club-style swing of a Grappelli Night on the 26th.
Other festival events still to come include the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and pianist Barry Douglas performing Pärt, Rachmaninov and Dvořák (20th) and actor Richard E Grant reading from his memoir A Pocketful of Happiness (23rd), while the Scots Opera Project presents The Seal Woman, a “Celtic folk opera” (21st-22nd). And there’s further east-west unity when Scots-Egyptian instrumentalists the Ayoub Sisters perform from their acclaimed new album Arabesque on the 22nd.
For more on World of the Gods, visit snjo.co.uk and www.taiko.co.uk. For more on this year’s Perth Festival, visit www.perthfestival.co.uk