thu 18/07/2024

Essentially Ellington, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Essentially Ellington, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Essentially Ellington, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Magnificent four-part tribute to one of the twentieth century's greatest composers

Traversing the whole of Ellington's output: the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

Now in its eighteenth year, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) demonstrated last night why it's considered one of Europe’s finest big bands. Brilliantly directed by tenor sax player Tommy Smith and featuring the great Brian Kellock on piano, the band performed music from their acclaimed In The Spirit of Duke released earlier this year.

The recording not only features some of the greatest music written in the last century but also captures the Ellington Orchestra sound down to the tiniest detail.

Ellington’s suites have long been part of SNJO's repertory programmes, so the Duke's music is well and truly part of its musical make-up. The beauty of In The Spirit of Duke is that, rather than focusing on a self-contained suite, it gives the 15-piece ensemble an opportunity to traverse the whole of Ellington's output. And what a superb job they've done. From the exquisitely balanced inner harmonies of “Le Sucrier Velours” to the joyous, pinpoint ensemble playing of “Daybreak Express”, the orchestra's exceptional musicianship shone through every carefully sculpted phrase.

Just as Duke's band was noted for its strong individual players – double bassist Jimmy Blanton, trumpeter Cootie Williams, sax players Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney – there were similarly fine performances from SNJO soloists including Calum Gourlay (bass), Tom MacNiven (trumpet) and Martin Kershaw (clarinet). With a seemingly inexhaustible rhythmic drive, Kellock was outstanding throughout. His duet with Smith on “The Single Petal of a Rose” was magisterial.

This many-angled exploration was pleasingly rich in detail and nuance

The second half of the concert featured Mark Lockheart's Ellington in Anticipation project. The saxophonist and composer's high spec reimaginings of classic Ellington themes and Duke-inspired originals drew A-list performances from Liam Noble (piano), Finn Peters (alto sax, flute) James Allsop (clarinets), Margrit Hasler (viola), Jasper Høiby (bass) – the one change in line-up from the Kings Place gig earlier this year – and Seb Rochford (drums). Exuberant, playful and full of harmonic and textural surprise, this many-angled exploration was pleasingly rich in detail and nuance. I'd love to hear “I've Seen The Light” given the full Loose Tubes treatment.

This extended four-part programme exploring Ellington's legacy kicked off earlier in the evening with a panel session hosted by jazz writer and author Kevin LeGendre. In little over half an hour, Ellington experts Harvey Cohen and Walter van de Leur discussed Ellington's body of work and societal relevance, his pianism and his influence on Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, among others. His enduring legacy, as evidenced by recent releases including Terri Lyne Carrington's Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue and Ellington In Anticipation, was also examined.

One of the UK's finest exponents of ragtime and stride piano, Martin Litton, celebrated Ellington the pianist in a terrific pre-concert solo set which ranged from Ellington's earliest composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” (1914) – his piano style rooted in Harlem stride – to later works such as the haunting ballad “Fleurette Africaine” from Money Jungle (1962).

Essentially Ellington made you want to go straight back to the original recordings

To close the night, International Jazz Warriors Orphy Robinson and Cleveland Watkiss brought us a dynamic 'Ellington meets dub' DJ set in which “Mack the Knife”, “Jump for Joy”, “Money Jungle” and more were taken to entirely new sonic places. If memory serves, it's the first time I've seen dancing in the QEH foyer – it was a heartwarming sight.

More than anything else, Essentially Ellington made you want to go straight back to the original recordings. Now, where's that copy of Black, Brown and Beige?

Overleaf: watch the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra play 'Rockin' in Rhythm'

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