At last … the box offices are opening, the musicians, doubtless exhaling heterophonic sighs of relief, once again find themselves facing real live audiences, rather than video cameras. And among those taking the stage are the members of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, who, on 24 September, will play Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, the band’s first live gig in 18 months.
The concert, Live at 25, celebrates the renowned big band’s 25th anniversary – postponed from last year when a live-streamed performance from Perth Concert Hall in December marked the birthday. Next Friday will be a celebratory sampling of the SNJO’s repertoire across its lifespan, from classic jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and Leonard Bernstein, ranging through fusion greats such as Weather Report and Steps Ahead, to an extract from the Culloden Moor suite, which the band recorded with its composer, the late Glasgow-born saxophonist Bobby Wellins.
As the SNJO’s founder-director, saxophonist Tommy Smith, says: “It’s been 18 months since our previous live concert and although we’ve played online and recorded videos to keep in touch with everyone in the interim, nothing beats the physical thrill of performing with – and listening to – a big band in person.”
Sitting in the trombone section, with a share of soloing, will be two up-and-coming young players, both trombonists and both graduates from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz degree course, established and headed by Smith. Between them, Liam Shortall and Anoushka Nanguy enhanced the trombone’s prestige at last October’s Scottish Jazz Awards, when Shortall’s nu-jazz outfit corto.alto won both the Best Band and Best Album categories while Nanguy took the Rising Star award.
Both have played with the SNJO before and will be joined by another, eminently respected guest trombone player, Mark Nightingale. Shortall, 24, whose band has since scooped the 2021 New Music Scotland Innovation in Jazz Award, describes himself as “super-excited” not only to be resuming performing with corto-alto but to be playing with the SNJO once again: “I grew up wanting to play surrounded by all these amazing guys. Now I’m doing it, it’s a bit daunting, but everyone there is so encouraging and it’s just a great vibe.”
The big band’s repertoire is, he agrees, pretty removed from the hip-hop, Afrobeat and funk informed high energy of corto.alto, “but everything comes back to the tradition of playing in a big band and there’s a certain discipline that you gain from that. My music may not be so traditional, but I hope it comes from a place that has respect for tradition.”
Nanguy, 22, is similarly enthusiastic about the SNJO concert and about resuming live appearances in general, having played with her Noushy Quartet in Glasgow last week and with another planned for 13 November at Webster’s. While playing with the big band is a very different vibe from her two quartets, which can be hip-hop or rap influenced, she professes a wider love for big band jazz, having played in them in school and all through the Conservatoire. “I really enjoy the oomph and the presence a big band has,” she says. “It can be really intense, then it cuts and somebody starts improvising …”
The SNJO aren’t the only ones reacquainting themselves with audiences. Having streamed its first half online during its usual March slot, Aberdeen Jazz Festival returns for a second stage, presenting 18 live concerts between 30 September and 10 October. Artists billed include the acclaimed Norwegian pianist Espen Eriksen, as well as such notable Scottish names as Seonaid Aitken and saxophonist Helena Kay, pianist Fergus McCreadie, singer Irini Arabatzi and a the twin horns of fast-rising young saxophonists Matt Carmichael and Matthew Kilner in a new group.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s indispensable Jazz Bar re-opened at the beginning of this month, with gigs featuring the cream of Scottish jazz and beyond (with the “World Premiere” band on 18 September including saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski, pianist Brian Kellock and the aforementioned Liam Shortall.
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