May 23, 2024

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Kurt Elling and Tommy Smith make midwinter magic with the SNJO: Video

There’s a case for Christmas concerts staged in venerable Scottish architectural marvels being held in summertime. The room temperature for Scottish National Jazz Orchestra director/saxophonist Tommy Smith‘s settings of poems reflecting the deep midwinter that might have allowed the brilliant Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset to perform one of his ice-instrument spectaculars.

In the circumstances, the focus fell more on the performance than the work itself. Edinburgh’s St Mary’s Cathedral, with its Victorian gothic splendour and natural echo, became almost the musical and theatrical equivalent of football’s ’12th man’ as it offered a wonderfully effective dramatic and acoustic platform for Smith’s arrival, processing down the centre aisle, playing a beautiful folk-song-like air, with the 10-strong Cappella Nova choir in the side aisles adding their humming to the low drone of cathedral organ and arco double-bass.

The other vocal component, Kurt Elling, intimated that this was a meditation rather than a jazz gig and the SNJO itself was in an unfamiliar formation, being reduced to three trumpets, two trombones, double bass and drums, and enhanced by pedal harp, flute, bass clarinet, tuba, tympani and percussion. Elling was superb, giving due weight to both spoken and sung verses and, with his oaky tone set against the limber voices of Cappella Nova, sang out alongside the understated orchestrations. Smith, the other featured soloist on tenor sax, chose his phrases with great care, letting them breathe, sigh and expire in the atmosphere. The words came from writers living as well as long and not so long gone, from St Francis of Assisi to Liz Lochhead, who served as Scots Makar, or national poet, from 2011 to 2016, and the buoyant march of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, performed the hit-single role, playing in one’s internal jukebox all the way home.

Photos by Michael Putland


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