The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra stopped off at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh tonight as part of an all too short performance schedule performing “Sketches of Spain” and “Porgy & Bess”. These two visionary collaborations between Miles Davis and Gil Evans marked a watershed point in the critics’ and public’s perception of Jazz as a musical form and both remain as fresh and vibrant now as when they were originally recorded nearly 60 years ago. With these two live performances, the SNJO is making a bold statement to everyone about its musical maturity, and to some extent taking a pretty big risk as these two works are very close to many jazz lovers’ hearts and minds, and many people in the audience will accept nothing but “very special” from them.
“Very special” is exactly what the audience got from these performances, and if anyone ever had even the slightest doubt about the SNJO being a fully matured and major performance force in 21st century jazz, then those doubts should have been removed tonight.
I think it fair to say that both Miles Davis and Gil Evans were visionary geniuses who were constantly pushing the musical and tonal envelope of what jazz music and instruments could do, and the contemporary description of “Sketches of Spain” being “Third Stream” in its description of “a synthesis of classical music and jazz improvisation” is as true now as it ever was. This was the moment when all of the musical divisions between one form and another dissolved into one, and this is evident from the moment you enter the venue and look at the arrangement of instruments on stage...everything you would expect is there and more...even a harp!
Miles Davis and Gil Evans created such an individual painting in tone and sound with these works that no one is ever going to completely re-create that work (a bit like trying to copy a great work of art), but the truth is that it should never really be copied. In staying true to the spirit of the original work, every performance should retain the essence of the musical flavours and colours, but always add something unique and individual to it, and a large part of that individuality and stylistic vision came from out two solo guest stars on trumpet – Laura Jurd playing on “Sketches of Spain” and Tom MacNiven on “Porgy & Bess”.
The contrasting styles between the two are as interesting as where they are in their careers as jazz musicians. Laura Jurd is still very much at the beginning of what is without any doubt going to be a much accoladed musical career (several important ones in already) and her solo work and with the band Dinosaur are attracting critical and commercial attention from many avenues. Tom MacNiven on the other hand over many years has built up a well respected reputation as a solo musician, group and band performer and teacher whose musical talents are much in demand by musicians in many divergent musical genres.
Tommy Smith was conducting the SNJO in both performances tonight and brought to us all a performance of sounds that I would often associate more with a classical concert than a jazz one, and a very skilful arrangement of the music ensured that both classical and jazz elements of the SNJO blended seamlessly into their own “Sketches of Spain” and “Porgy & Bess”. Laura Jurd and Tom MacNiven were individually two outstanding soloists, but this performance pushed everyone in the SNJO into new performance places and every musician on stage was a part of something very special happening here.
Appropriately at the start of this show, Tommy Smith dedicated the performance to the late Tom Mcgrath (1940 – 2009) – a playwright, musician and poet who was a constant guiding light in the Jazz world and who as a promoter brought Miles Davis to Scotland in 1973.
Review by Tom King