Norse Myths, performed at The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh (performances also in Aberdeen and Glasgow) by The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Arild AndersenTrio is a project on a scale almost as large as the myths themselves and equally as full of emotions, shades, textures, colours and sounds as the wonderful stories that inspired them.
From reading the programme notes, Tommy Smith obviously shares one thing with me– an interest and fascination with world-wide religions throughout history and the stories contained within those religions. There is something almost hard wired into us as human beings that seems to require us to have “faith” in our “Gods”. This primeval instinct is global and is as old as recorded history, with long-dead religions still telling their stories down through the millennia in art, architecture, music and folk-lore. What always interests me is how belief systems reflect the landscapes, lifestyles and times and the very forces of nature of their worshippers, and our “Gods” are so often reflections of the world around us. The legends of the Norse Gods, Frigg, Odin, Loki and Thor are no different in this respect and that always leads me to ask the question of “Is man created in God’s image or does man create God in his/her image?”.
The SNJO have over the years built up, under the directorship of Tommy Smith, a solid reputation as a Jazz Orchestra able to play both the well-known standards and innovative new music like “Norse Myths”. The Arild Andersen Trio consisting of Arild Andersen (double bass), Tommy Smith (saxophone) and Paolo Vinaccia (drums/percussion) also have a reputation over the years for innovative jazz/musical projects, so the combination of the two (SNJO and trio) on this project seems to be a perfect marriage. Unfortunately, due to personal health issues, drummer and percussionist Paolo Vinaccia was not able to come to Scotland for rehearsals and these performances, and French drummer Patrice Heral (who has performed with Arild and Tommy before) takes his place for these live Scottish performance dates. Our best wishes here to Paolo Vinaccia for a good recovery.
All too often, it is easy just to sit back and watch an SNJO performance without taking into account the huge amount of work and time that goes into every performance by so many people, and Norse Myths is no exception to this. Here, like the myths themselves, the stories for this project come from old folk stories and folk songs/melodies, and here Tommy Smith selected the music for Norse Myths by first of all listening to over 400 Norwegian folk melodies. From this initial 400 a selection of 90 possible songs were chosen and then mostly recorded on saxophone and arranged into rough groupings. Working with Arild Andersen, the final 12 were selected (avoiding those which Arild had previously recorded in other projects). From this final selection, the 12 works were split up into threes and the four elements of this project – Frigg, Odin, Loki and Thor. Commissioned composers/arrangers Bill Dobbins, Florian Ross, Geoffrey Keezer, and Øyvind Brække developed their respective segments further, and the resulting combined work is a truly international project full of many surprises.
The arrangements on Norse Myths allow some very clear differences in playing approaches to instruments and textures to be given almost side by side as we have Arild and SNJO’s Calum Gourlay each playing double bass and also the contrasting drums/percussion styles of Patrice Heral and SNJO’s Alyn Cosker. Watching and listening to any musician at the skill level of Arild Andersen or Patrice Heral is always a pleasure, but the approach Arild has taken with double bass and using pedals/boxes to play with sounds in a way that we would normally associate far more with bass guitar is a fine example of just how innovative he is as a musician. Patrice Heral’s performance on drums/percussion was impressive too, even more so when you consider the small amount of time he has had to learn, rehearse and perform the complex musical project that is Norse Myths. Blending into both performances of course was Tommy Smith on saxophone. Part of the pleasure of this performance for me was also watching Tommy, Arild and Patrice play off one another’s music and the obvious pleasure that all three were having here playing together. Of course, the SNJO and some fine solo performances were all part of this multi-layered musical experience that reflects not only the stories and legends of the Norse people, but their nature, landscape and sounds.
Norse and Celtic mythologies have interwoven with one another over the centuries, and these stories have never gone away, they are still very much part of our culture and the belief in Gods not only creating everything around us, but being responsible directly for the very forces of nature is still a strong belief with many people. Christianity may have replaced the old Nordic Gods, but it never erased them from our cultural identity. In fact, if anything, it absorbed many parts of this older belief system into its own, and even today the names we give to the days of our week (except Saturday) come from Norse God origins.
Norse Myths is important on more than one level; it continues an ancient tradition of story telling through music, and also redefines what many people consider to be Jazz music. Norse Myths also clearly shows that as a musical form Jazz music continues to explore new inspirations and sounds and the also endless possibilities of the SNJO with Tommy Smith as a director who is clearly someone with an ever inquisitive mind open to musical inspiration from many divergent sources.
Review by Tom King