Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra/Mark Lockheart’s Ellington in Anticipation LJF, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 23 November


Tommy Smith, leader of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, is one of Scotland’s favourite sons. When he achieved a scholarship to the famed Berkley College in Boston, the community clubbed together to secure the funding necessary for him to take up the opportunity.  He narrated the show with an American inflected Scottish tongue. It is no stretch to say that he is Scotland’s equivalent of Wynton Marsalis; he has amply repaid the investment the community made in his tutelage.

Even his haircut, which would have been ideal for the latest production of The Great Gatsby, was in sync with the performance. The sound balance to which the audience was treated was superb, every detail clearly articulated, the timbres vivid. Many in the auditorium were from the same generation as the Jazzwise contributor The Colonel ; many of whom were clearly aficionados of the Duke’s work, they responded with delight to arrangements of familiar Ellington tunes such as Mood Indigo, Take the A Train, The Queen’s Suite, and a section of Ellington’s arrangement of the Peer Gynt Suite .  I’m not sure I could have danced all night, but I certainly could have listened to the SNJO all night.  

The audience response to Mark Lockheart’s Ellington in Anticipation was, it is fair to say, rather more reserved.  Indeed, some members of the audience started drifting out before the conclusion of the set, which perplexed me.  It was a Saturday night after all, and it seemed to be younger attendees leaving early. Perhaps they didn’t connect with the reworking of Ellington’s tunes – Satin Doll for instance became Jungle Lady.  It all started off very promisingly with a toe-tapping version of It don’t mean a Thing. Lockheart has followed Ellington’s lead in discovering interesting, individual voices for his band, and then writing parts for them. Seb Rochford though was more restrained in this setting than when I saw him to pulsating effect with Sons of Kemet earlier in the week.  James Allsopp can be fiery when he performs in solo settings on the local London Jazz Scene, and flautist/saxophonist Finn Peters had a four star album release with ”Butterflies”.  Perhaps they were trying a little too hard to blend their individual sounds into the collective? Although fewer in numbers than the SNJO, they also managed to produce an impressively big, hall filling sound.

Lockheart announced that a CD album of the tunes would be available for purchase after the show, but this did not appear to be the case; I was far from the only one who was enquiring after it and would have wanted to revisit the arrangements. They are, perhaps, something of an acquired taste, and would I imagine have rewarded further hearings as they yielded up their subtleties. On the penultimate night of the London Jazz Festival, what could have been more fitting than an evening devoted to one of the greatest American musical giants of the 20th century?           

- Graham Boyd