This musical project was inspired by the 'Syntopicon', a cross referencing index for 'Great Books of the Western World' published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952. SNJO director Tommy Smith bought the entire 54 volumes in 1990, and in Kurt Elling he has found the ideal collaborator to explore some of the key themes in the context of jazz. The programme included ideas of knowledge & wisdom, language, good & evil, love & beauty, life and death, with re-workings of pieces from composers including Wayne Shorter, Thelonius Monk, Leonard Bernstein and traditional Scottish music.
The evening opened with 'Green Chimneys' a Monk piece representing joy, which Elling embraced with gleeful scatting. He provided lyrics to several numbers, including Vince Mendoza's 'Esperanto' and Wayne Shorter's 'Go'. In the latter, the drummer Alyn Cosker's sinister beating rumba was particularly effective, and presaged an old man's haunting memories of the loss of his family in the Holocaust. The highlight of the first set was Paul Simon's 'American Tune' (knowledge & wisdom), arranged by the young German Christian Elsasser, and played by the orchestra to great effect with Elling's soaring vocal.
The second set continued with themes of love, beauty and death, but these pretensions never got in the way of the outstanding delivery of some great arrangements by SNJO. Elling gave a reprise of 'A New Body and Soul' from the Nightmoves album, with a faultless delivery of his extended vocalese of Dexter Gordon's solo. Initially a duet with Steve Hamilton on piano, then joined by bass and drums, the trio provided contrast to the other pieces, and gave focus to the superb vocal performance. A new arrangement of Bernstein & Sondheim's 'Somewhere' was specially commissioned from Geoffrey Keezer, and was another example of how the different parts of the band were utilised to provide contrast, dynamics and drama. The evening ended on a seriously funky note with John Scofield's 'Jeep on 35', with Elling singing a vocalese with attitude by Nina Clark ('...got my plan, gonna get me a life...'), and a blistering tenor solo from Tommy Smith. However, the band leader got to show his tender side in his solo in the encore 'Loch Tay Boat Song'.
Prior to the concert there was an onstage conversation between Elling and Smith which proved most interesting.
This was the second night of the 3 date Scottish tour, and the performance reflected the depth of understanding that has developed during several collaborations over recent years. Elling plays with many big bands round the world, and rates SNJO as one of the best. Unfortunately the singer is yet to visit north-east England, but SNJO will be venturing south performing at The Sage Jazz Festival on April 6.