Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with their performance of “The Count & The Duke” at The Usher Hall in Edinburgh was a perfect end of year finish to an already impressive season of 2018 concerts.
“The Count & The Duke” of course refers to those two giants of not only jazz music, but 20th century music, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Here, classic works from each, Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” and Count Basie’s “Atomic Mr Basie” each were given their own set, and any one of these projects would have been challenging enough for any orchestra to perform live, but two - I think that just shows what a level of musicianship the SNJO is currently at.
Our evening opened with music from the SNJO’s earlier work “Black and Tan Fantasy” before performing the rarely heard masterpiece of Duke Ellington’s that is “Black, Brown and Beige” and, for this concert, the SNJO have gone back to the original 1943 performance as a source. Fortunately this performance was recorded and released on record the following year for future generations of musicians to always go back to for inspiration. As always, with any SNJO performance, Tommy Smith is not only a fine musician and performer, but a good educator, and his informative notes on this music added much to tonight’s performance for me. It was interesting to me to learn from Tommy that Duke Ellington only performed this work three times and that the SNJO are only performing it three times as well.
“Black, Brown and Beige” with its move into very classical structures may have divided Jazz purists (it still does it seems) at the time, but its music and commentary on the African-American identity in contemporary America was ground-breaking, and still after over 75 years since it was first performed, this work has lost none of its message or power. “Black, Brown and Beige” is simply the musical statement of a genius at work. This performance and the arrangements were also the SNJO at its best and, as well as some fine work as an orchestra, also some fine solo work and a very good performance by guest vocalist Anoushka Nanguy on the “Blues Theme Mauve” movement.
By contrast, “Atomic Mr Basie” was a straight play through of the classic 1958 album of the same name which saw Count Basie return in style to his position as one of the Jazz greats of his time. The music on this album is simply what many people still refer to as “classic jazz” and listening to this performance it is easy to understand why so many people have that opinion. There are no weak tracks to pick out on this album; every one is a classic, and that is always going to be a problem for anyone attempting to perform the music as it is so well known and so loved by so many people that there is just no room for any mistakes. So many people around me obviously knew every beat of this music, and the SNJO disappointed no one with this performance. A special mention here of course needs to go to Brian Kellock for some fine jazz piano work here.
Two classic composers and performers from the classic years of Jazz and American music being performed live by a tight and innovative contemporary jazz orchestra, a perfect way to spend an evening.
Review by Tom King