You know, bookish, thoughtful people are not at all introverted and unapproachable. Just get into a conversation with a librarian about their favourite stories from childhood and you will see what I mean. In a series of weekend concerts, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) and guest vocalist Kurt Elling engaged in a literary discourse over Syntopicon: An Index to The Great books of Western Literature. No one got lost, no one was even slightly disorientated and everyone had a great time listening to stories of the human condition filtered through amazing jazz and wonderful words.
Billed as Syntopicon: An Evening with Kurt Elling, the programme conceived by SNJO founder/director Tommy Smith saw the orchestra further pursue the path of eclecticism. This is the big band that dares to be different, and it's now turning heads in Europe and in the USA for its derring-do as much as its imperturbable professionalism.
Syntopicon could hardly have been more eclectic with the inclusion of high-octane modern jazz in the shape of Wayne Shorter's Go, the caress of a Broadway melody on Somewhere (There's a Place For Us), the uncertainty of Paul Simon's American Tune and the story of a broken-hearted boy on a Scottish loch. What could possibly bind all these highly diverse thought-streams together into one vision? Well, the answer should be simple enough; music and song.
Of course, the SNJO's ideas about music and Kurt Elling's art with song are bound to stretch the form and test the waters that others find uninviting. Yet, these are the routes to discovery and the rewards can be extremely rich and uplifting. Take for example, The Great Books of Western Literature upon which the programme is based. As Elling so eruditely explained, the Syntopicon lists and cross-references what great authors thought about Joy, Beauty, Love, Wisdom, Knowledge, Evil and Death. These are the concepts we almost unthinkingly apply to the human experience and the human condition. When you put it this way it seems surprising that a programme of modern music such as this hasn't (to my knowledge) been curated in this way before.
Green Chimneys captured all the joy of the careless playground in Elling's scatological re-telling of Monk's musings at the school gates. The tune is named for the school that the composer's daughter attended and Elling delighted in some agile vocal hopscotch. Language was used on the Elling/Mendoza composition Esperanto and gave us a first glimpse of the singer's powerful command of words and a stratospheric vocal that soared skywards. Here, and in other telling moments, Elling's voice seemed to become a disembodied force of nature pushing out into the auditorium and filling the space above our heads.
The Mingus tribute to a great bandleader Duke Ellington's Sound of Love appears on the new SNJO CD American Adventure with Elling not so much guesting as collaborating. In performance we get to witness sublime control, superlative phrasing and sophisticated interpretation of a painstaking arrangement by Smith that expands like a small universe. It was an early high point in an evening of peaks, and yet more peaks. Steve Hamilton's elegantly touching piano introduction to Geoffrey Keezer's arrangement of Somewhere from West Side Story signalled the falling away of cares. One could only sigh as one of the finest melodies in American music was swept off its feet by an orchestra in its confident, optimistic prime.
Then there was Elling in full-flow vocalese following the filaments of a Dexter Gordon solo; a call and response exchange with Tommy Smith on sax; and an absorbing recitation of The City Dark, Robert Pinsky's genial and genealogical observation of the exponential nature of all human life. I could listen to Kurt Elling sing all night, but if he simply wanted to talk that would be alright with me too. He has a tutored speaking voice, but he also possesses the intuitive audience skills of the gifted pastor. He connects with people through his humaneness, not at all unlike Garrison Keillor, and this is probably one of his finest innate gifts.
If you think, I indulge in starry talk that is just a "wheen o' blethers", then you were either asleep through his tender treatment of the Tay Boat Song, or worse still, you were not there. Elling climbed into the soul of a confused and befuddled young man, perplexed by losing in love and heartbroken at the loss. It's an evocative Scottish song, set in an iconic Scottish place but it was sung by a nuanced, educated American voice that gave it universal meaning. Tommy Smith added his thoughts on saxophone and he too navigated the tricky channels between art, culture, identity, emotion and understanding. Elling and Smith are clearly good friends, and that would probably be the case whether both men were plumbers or accountants. As it is, music is the common cause and words are their bond. Syntopicon is what they did together with one of the finest repertory orchestras anywhere, and it was truly memorable.