Saturday 28 August 2010

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra try to bring Jazz to the International Festival

I'm a big fan of the idea of crossing things over, of mingling and fusing different styles and presenting things to an audience they might not normally come across.  As such, I thought bringing some Jazz to the International Festival was a great idea, especially given the heavily American themes this year, even though Edinburgh is pretty well served with its own Jazz festival.  While the other major attempt at blurring boundaries this year, the Kronos Quartet, was a stunning success, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra sadly fell rather flat.

The first half was split in two and began with a performance of Gil Evans' arrangement of Porgy and Bess.  Since we'd had the opera already, this seemed sensible.  Add to which Evans' is an incredible arranger and the piece is one of his greatest achievements.  Unfortunately, it was originally conceived for Miles Davis and it is through this recording (one of the great albums of all time) that most people will know it.  The problem with trying to recreate something so amazing is that either you have to be astonishingly good, or you should try and find something new to say.  The SNJO, conducted by Gunther Schuller, did neither.  Instead they delivered a flat and lifeless reading of six of the numbers, utterly lacking the vividness and punch of the original.  Where was the grit, the colour?  Also, given the quality of some of their playing later in the evening, the ensemble seemed a little loose.  Taking Davis's solo part, Kenny Rampton failed to distinguish himself.  In fairness, though, he wasn't helped by some poor balancing of the amplification (a constant complaint throughout the evening).

After a brief pause wherein Schuller went off to change his jacket (if Joyce DiDonato could, he suggested, why not he? Fair enough - but she didn't make us wait), they presented a series of seven jazz masterpieces.  Schuller failed to get off on the right foot with me, with his rather patronising suggestion that we might associate the word masterpiece with only classical music.  Now, not everyone knows as much about jazz as I do (though I know a fair few jazz fans amongst EIF regulars), but I suspect even hardened classical obsessives who were taking a punt aren't so narrow-minded as that.  There seemed a presumption that it was the regular festival audience, but looking around I don't think it was.  However, when he started to talk about the music he redeemed himself and gave us interesting facts and anecdotes.  He seemed transformed from Porgy and Bess, now standing to conduct and generally raising the energy level (it was almost like he hadn't really wanted to do the first part).

So, what was the problem?  Well, it came in his introduction, where he told us that here were seven masterpieces presented in very authentic style.  With the exception of Ralph Burns' arrangement of Woody Herman's Apple Honey and Tommy Dorsey's Well, Get It, they rarely seemed to come to life.  Instead, this felt like jazz bottled, stuffed and mounted for display in a museum.  I wanted the real thing.  He went on about Duke Ellington's greatness (in the process making spurious comparisons about the quantity of his output and Bach's) but didn't really demonstrate it - Daybreak Express paled in comparison as a depiction of a train next to Different Trains which the Kronos Quartet played for us last week.  Introducing Harry James's version of Leroy Holmes' The Mole, featuring a string quartet, he told us to listen carefully for all the interesting things they were doing - so poorly balanced were they, you needed very good hearing indeed.  Time and again throughout the evening, the balance of the instruments seemed highly variable and poorly done.  I was amazed to see the sound engineer sitting at the mixing desk and never once seeming to tweak the knobs.  If you're going to amplify an acoustic gig, it should be done in a manner that is invisible.  This wasn't.  It was a far cry from the technological tour de force that accompanied the Kronos Quartet last Saturday.

Things perked up somewhat after the interval as Tommy Smith and the SNJO played what seemed to be more of a normal set for them.  Yet even here things seemed a little safe and the evening proved much too long (running to nearly three hours, an hour over the stated time, leading to people walking out in their droves to avoid missing buses or trains).  Indeed, Schuller's own point about early jazz records having been limited to three minutes (due to the discs used), meaning artists often had only 8 bars to solo, whereas now they can go on much longer, though whether they said more is another question, could very easily have been meant for this concert.  When, ten minutes after they should have finished, he announce they were going to play his twenty minute version of Rhapsody in Blue, I thought he must be joking.  He wasn't.  In fairness, I'm glad they did, since it was a fabulous piece and one of the highlights of the evening, if a little long.  The other main highlight came with Ryan Quigley's superb trumpet solo in Salt Peanuts.  Both of these did far more for me than the second half's headline soloist, saxophonist Joe Lovano.  At the end of the day, though, as a whole it did little for me, and I don't know how many people it will have won over to the wonders of jazz.

So, was the festival wrong to try and bring jazz to the programme?  Absolutely not.  Next time, though, and I hope there is a next time, please let them try something a little braver.


Anonymous said...

The first half of the concert was totally acoustic. Hence the lack of knob twiddling by the sound engineer.

Tam Pollard said...

I don't believe that. (Not least as if it were the sound would have been significantly different in the second half. It wasn't. There wasn't much if any nob twiddling then either.)

If it was the case, it would frankly be a pretty damning comment on the orchestra given how variable the sound was (consistent with movement of instruments towards and away from microphones).

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