Friday, February 14, 2014

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: In the Spirit of Duke

Spartacus Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: In the Spirit of Duke

As everybody should know by now, jazz is enjoyed and appreciated worldwide. That said, this album hails from a country that doesn’t yet have a big reputation in our genre of choice. That’s something of an oversight; although mainstream American jazz fans likely couldn’t cite artists who hale from Scotland, several of our premier musicians proudly call that country home. One celebrated Scottish jazz musician is saxophonist, composer and arranger Tommy Smith.

Smith’s father, also a jazz buff and drummer, started his son on sax when he was 12 years old; he was only 16 when he released his first recordings with a quartet. During that same period, Tommy earned a scholarship to Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music. Just two years later, thanks to a recommendation from Chick Corea, he joined Gary Burton’s group on a world tour.

By the late 1980s, and into the early ’90s, Smith’s style had morphed into a more classical, concert-oriented approach. He composed “programs” based on music associated with famous jazz artists; he also formed his own recording company, Spartacus, so he’d have more control over his material. This combination of classics and jazz was quite popular, and drew major crowds at concerts throughout the world.

In the Spirit of Duke began as a project in the early 2000s, which eventually was taken on the road in 2012. The performance format was ambitious: stage settings were constructed to match the time period of the music being played, and the arrangements were memorized, so the musicians didn’t appear to be “reading.” The result could be called “repertory jazz.”

This album features 18 individual segments that are identified by tunes that Ellington and his cohorts — specifically Billy Strayhorn — composed, played and made famous, over the years. These are blended in a manner that tells the story of these individuals. As a result, many of the tracks herein are relatively short — averaging 3 minutes — but everything flows beautifully. 

The orchestra as a whole is first-class, as are the individual musicians featured as soloists. It’s like an evening at the theater, and it swings wonderfully. If you enjoy Ellington, you’ll love what Smith and his Scottish National Jazz Orchestra have produced. 

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