‘Where Rivers Meet’ – Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

Where Rivers Meet is a celebration of the free-spirited, blues and gospel-influenced jazz that reflected the turbulent times in America during the 1960s. The concert series was staged online from the 12th century St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh in May during the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s silver jubilee year.

Orchestra founder-director, saxophonist Tommy Smith says:  

The setting of St Giles was really inspiring. It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t have an audience with us to share the event due to the Covid restrictions at the time. Everyone in the orchestra really put their hearts and souls into the music, however, and we’re really happy with the results.

Where Rivers Meet comprises four suites dedicated to pioneering saxophonists Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, and Dewey Redman and arranged by Paul Harrison, Paul Towndrow, Tommy Smith, and Geoffrey Keezer. Saxophonists Martin Kershaw, Konrad Wiszniewski, Paul Towndrow, and Tommy Smith are the featured soloists: the project has already enjoyed critical acclaim.  

Artwork by Maria Rud

‘Lonely Woman’ has, at times, a plaintive quality about it but it is also stirring and emotive. Alyn Cosker on drums plays a terrific supporting role to Paul Towndrow on alto sax whose playing is sublime throughout. The arrangement is very good with sparse use of the full orchestra, which only makes their interjections all the more powerful. The mood is lifted slightly on ‘Peace’, which has that big band feel about it that was not so apparent in the opening number. The playing, as one has come to expect from the SNJO, is first class – as is the arrangement. ‘Broadway Blues’ closes this opening Ornette Coleman Suite with Calum Gourlay coming to the fore with some great bass playing beneath the sax of Paul Towndrow and, once again Alyn Cosker on drums deserves a mention.

The Suite Celebrating Dewey Redman begins with ‘Dewey’s Tune’. The orchestra comes in full bore and what a wonderful full-toned sound it is. Pete Johnstone plays a good piano throughout, but it is the tenor sax of Konrad Wiszniewski that stands out for me: tremendous tonal range on display and always in full control. ‘Joie De Vivre’ lives up to its title with an upbeat tempo and a tune full of vitality. The backing to the tenor sax is superb with the piano cutting through the horns and making its presence felt amongst all that brass. ‘The Very Thought of You’ is a bright swinging number and Konrad Wiszniewski plays it very well with solid support from Pete Johnstone at the piano. This tune sounds so good in an orchestrated setting and the final solo section from Konrad is sublime.

I must admit to not being familiar with the work of Anthony Braxton so the third Suite on this album is my first introduction to the saxophonist’s work. ‘Composition 40M’ starts at a brisk pace, the bass of Calum Gourlay standing out as does the playing of Martin Kershaw. There are some wonderful runs on the sax to enjoy and Cosker’s drumming, which ripples along underneath, is exemplary. ‘Composition No. 161’ opens sedately with the orchestra just sitting back from the sax of Martin Kershaw. The melody then drifts into a freer style of playing before Liam Shortall on trombone introduces a brighter section with piano, bass, and drums adding colour to the sax sound, which is then filled out by the orchestra. There is much to admire in this tune with its light and shade, ebb and flow and tone palette. This Suite finishes on ‘Composition 245’ and its punchy opening not giving the listener much idea as to where it might go. Staccato is the word that kept coming to mind when listening to this piece and I was fascinated by how it all held together. Piano and sax traded phrases, a driving beat, the use of spoken word and splashes of sound from various parts of the orchestra make for an interesting listen and each time I listened I picked up on something unnoticed on the previous hearing: challenging but rewarding.

The final Suite on Where Rivers Meet is that celebrating Albert Ayler with Tommy Smith taking the lead on tenor sax. ‘Ghosts’ is the longest track on the album and opens with a wonderful solo from Tommy. When Albert Ayler released Ghosts in 1964 one reviewer stated that “It helps greatly to have open ears to appreciate this music, although Ayler’s jams would become a bit more accessible the following year.”  I did not find this track inaccessible but that might say more about Geoffrey Keezer’s orchestration than Ayler’s composition. The playing on ‘Ghosts’ is strong and controlled without losing the free jazz style that Albert Ayler was known for. Dvořák composed the tune to ‘Goin’ Home’, which Ayler recorded as the title track to his 1964 album release. The tune will be very familiar from the start and Tommy plays it beautifully. The interplay section that starts with trumpet and sax is delightful and the classical music styling is maintained from start to finish something that Ayler, who reputedly revered the tune, would have appreciated. I am not a fan of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ nor am I a lover of extended drum solos however, all that changed on the final track of this Suit and the album. This is the standout track for me, the drumming is simply outstanding and a clear example of how a good drummer can play melody. This overworked tune has had new life breathed into it and full credit to Geoffrey Keezer for his orchestration on this stellar version.

Where Rivers Meet is available to download from Bandcamp now and will be made available on CD at some point in the future. This is a terrific album with outstanding orchestrations and playing. The music is thought provoking, melodic, stirring and, at times, challenging: everything that a discerning listener of jazz music could want. What is more, the choice of music has encouraged me to take a closer look at the music of the four musicians celebrated by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

Musicians:

Martin Kershaw – clarinet & alto saxophone; Paul Towndrow – alto saxophone; Tommy Smith tenor saxophone; Konrad Wiszniewski – tenor saxophone; Bill Fleming – bass clarinet & baritone saxophone; Jim Davison – lead trumpet; James Copus – trumpet & flugelhorn; Christos Stylinades – trumpet & flugelhorn; Kieran McLeod – lead trombone; Liam Shortall – trombone; Michael Owers -bass trombone; Pete Johnstone – piano; Calum Gourlay – acoustic bass; Alyn Cosker drums.

Track list:

Ornette Coleman Suite featuring Paul Towndrow orchestration Tommy Smith
1. Lonely Woman. 2.Peace. 3. Broadway Blues

Dewey Redman Suite featuring Konrad Wiszniewski orchestration Paul Towndrow
4. Dewey’s Tune. 5. Joie De Vivre. 6. The Very Thought of You (Ray Noble)

Anthony Braxton Suite featuring Martin Kershaw orchestration Paul Harrison
7. No. 40 M. 8. No. 161. 9. No. 245

Albert Ayler Suite featuring Tommy Smith orchestration Geoffrey Keezer
10. Ghosts. 11 Goin’ Home (Dvořák). 12. When The Saints Go Marching In (James M. Black)

Artwork by Maria Rud

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