Tommy Smith and the SNJO dazzle with a myriad of Norse Myths

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The world premiere of Norse Myths took place at Aberdeen Jazz Festival this week, and featured the colourful new offering from the project’s originator, Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith. From recent Marvel blockbuster films, to Neil Gaiman’s 2017 re-telling of Norse mythology, to the drama playing out as we speak by our present-day British gods, the theme feels topical.

Smith described choosing 12 beautiful Norwegian folk melodies, from an impressive 400 which he researched, as the basis for the four newly commissioned pieces which constitute Norse Myths.

Due to illness, Italian Paolo Vinaccia’s drumming role in the authoritative Arild Andersen Trio was taken by Frenchman, drummer and percussionist Patrice Heral. The latter’s playful vocalisations and Prevost-esque percussive style, synergised effectively with Andersen’s strikingly original and often minimalist bass. Meanwhile Smith’s versatile sax switched instantaneously from flamboyant roar to whisper.

The concert opened with US composer Geoffrey Keezer’s ‘Thor’, which, according to programme notes, is based upon three folk songs: a sad love story; a battle between Thor and a giant serpent; and a bar brawl. Opening atmospherically, an implacable wall of sound soon developed. Then, like a film soundtrack, a scurrying rhythm section prefaces beautiful harmonising from the orchestra’s pianist Pete Johnstone. Delightful duetting from Andersen and Heral heralded a fabulous final brawl involving Smith and the entire orchestra.

The second piece is American Bill Dobbin’s ‘Frigg’. This time the intriguing folk songs the piece is based upon, described a kidnapper troll, a fratricide and a tribal war. Initial lulling soon gave way to a gamut of emotions, from thrilling, rampaging full orchestra to stately, ruminative calm. Several orchestra members soloed, with drummer Alyn Cosker’s scorching contribution being especially notable.

Post interval is Norwegian Oyvind Braekke’s ‘Odin’, based upon songs concerning Valkyries, ghost armies and hunting. The familiar opening melody is that used by Edvard Greig in his piano version (Opus 17, No 5). Andersen and Heral segued from Latin American to fashionable modern rhythms, Andersen adding some lovely completing touches whence Smith recapitulated resoundingly. A brief apparent duel between Cosker and a cheek-popping Heral injected fun.

The final piece, ‘Loki’ by German Florian Ross, blended songs of a hero freeing a princess, a Christmas carol, and the story of a giant’s lovelorn distress. More gorgeous melodies from Johnstone’s piano, glorious duetting from Andersen and Heral and further Smith escalations, culminated in some of the hottest, loudest big band jazz sounds heard in this city this year.

– Fiona Mactaggart
– Photo by Derek Clark