The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra were once again pushing the boundaries tonight at The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh of what many people would expect a Jazz Orchestra to be playing as two classical works were given new interpretations - “Peter and The Wolf” by SNJO founder/director Tommy Smith, and “Carnival of the Animals” by internationally credited musician and composer Makoto Ozone.
Peter and The Wolf, a musical composition written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 with children specifically in mind, has endeared itself to generations of adults and children since its first performance, and the number of children at this performance (rare for 7.30 pm SNJO performance start ) is a testament to its enduring charm. This version of the classic though at times has more jazz colours and moods than many people would have heard before, and this merging of classic and jazz worlds has produced something fresh and very special. Adding to the childhood magic of the work is a new story by Liz Lochhead setting Peter firmly in Scotland with narration by Leith-born actor and musician Tam Dean Burn.
This re-interpretation of Peter and The Wolf was, judging by the smiles on their faces, obviously a pleasure for the members of the SNJO to play, and that showed everywhere in the group and individual performances. I watched quite closely at times how the children in the audience were reacting to this work, and they were for the most captivated by the story and the music. Tommy Smith is not just a Jazz musician, but a composer and arranger with an inquisitive mind that covers so many different strands of music, and projects like this one that combine different musical styles, and in this case also incorporate new written work and spoken word, are why I try never to miss an SNJO performance as the musicians of the orchestra are versatile enough to be stretched musically far outside the normal parameters of a Jazz based music. It is sometimes also forgotten just how important the work of Tommy Smith is as a musical educator and supporter of young people – The Tommy Smith Youth Orchestra being a perfect example of this. “Peter and the Wolf” however is something a little different, and although this work was not it seems designed to target an audience from the very young upwards, I think that judging by the reactions from old and young in the venue tonight that Tommy Smith and the SNJO have found a perfect doorway through which to introduce young people into not only the sounds of jazz, but the instruments used to perform it, and getting young people interested in music of any form as early as possible is probably more important than anything else in music as, whether or not they ever choose to make it their career, that early exposure to music stays with them forever.
Our second half performance tonight was Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux), and as with the first performance, this is a re-interpretaion of the classic suite by French Romantic composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns. In this new work, Makoto Ozone has broken the fourteen movements up into four distinct parts, and the result is a stunning piece of work that, from the smiles on the faces of the SNJO musicians, was giving them as much pleasure playing as we in the audience were getting from listening.
Makoto Ozone is a very special musical talent equally at home and equally as highly proficient in both Jazz and Classical performance worlds, and the fluid ease with which both styles (and many others) in between were performed on piano tonight (as well as the music written for the SNJO and solo performances) left, I hope, no one in the audience in any doubt that a very special musician was on stage tonight.
Tommy Smith and Makoto Ozone have worked together on projects before, but played together often throughout their careers, and I always find Tommy Smith’s worldwide reputation as a musician and the many friends that he has made over his career one of the foundation stones of the SNJO. His ability to bring musicians of the calibre of Makoto Ozone to work with the SNJO not only enhances and develops the orchestra as musicians, but gives audience members like myself the chance to see and hear so many musicians from a wide spectrum of musical genres that I might otherwise never get the chance to hear on stage in Edinburgh. Any SNJO performance is always for me something different, but more importantly than that I leave the show having been introduced to something new every time and learning something new every time, and this collaboration between Tommy Smith, Makoto Ozone and the SNJO proves so easily that music is just that – music, and it knows none of the artificial name tags that we keep trying to place on it. Instead, music is forever flowing, forever fluid and forever changing.
Review by Tom King