Spirit of Light: Tommy Smith leads the SNJO on another adventure in musical collaboration

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra has pulled off some novel projects that have ventured well beyond the bounds of mainstream jazz, from performances with the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers to a Mozart piano concerto. This weekend, however, the SNJO's director Tommy Smith leads the band through perhaps its most intriguing collaboration yet, when it performs specially composed Christmas and solstice music in three Scottish cathedrals, with Grammy award-winning US jazz singer Kurt Elling and the acclaimed Scots choral ensemble Cappella Nova.
Sounding out in acoustically awesome cathedral spaces in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Spirit of Light is a suite of Smith's settings of sacred and secular poetry by writers as diverse as Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Frost, Norman MacCaig and Saint Francis of Assisi.

Smith and the SNJO have a long-standing and fruitful working relationship with Elling, a foremost voice in contemporary jazz. The ten-strong Cappella Nova, renowned for its performances of both early liturgical music and contemporary material by the likes of James MacMillan and John Tavener, is something rather different, however, and while he has experience of large-scale orchestral composition, as in last year's Modern Jacobite, Smith agrees that writing for such diverse instrumental and vocal forces has been a challenge.

When I met the saxophonist he'd just finished meeting with the organist who will play in Spirit of Light, Simon Nieminski. The SNJO's ranks will be further augmented by a harpist and percussionist as well as a classical flautist and clarinettist. “It's not jazz music and it's not classical,” says Smith. “It can't be pigeonholed.”

In Smith's view, jazz he's heard performed in churches has tended to be “too busy and lacking in clarity. I've written this with a cathedral acoustic in mind, giving space for the notes to die.”

On this occasion, the only SNJO soloist will be Smith himself on tenor sax, although he stresses that it will be “sparse” compared to more orthodox jazz soloing: “Even though I'm improvising, it won't be all squeaks and noises and doing it for an ego trip. I want to present sound and colours and textures and a different voice.”

The programme will feature 11 of Smith's poem settings, plus an introductory kyrie in Latin and English. Smith has form in setting poetry to music, having worked extensively with the late Edwin Morgan. Here, he has included two of Norman MacCaig's crystalline evocations – In December and Perfect Morning – and Robert Frost's much-loved Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, as well as less well known works by Rilke, St Francis of Assisi and others. And he's commissioned a new poem – the titular Spirit of Light – from Liz Lochhead, which Elling will read.

He's been working on these orchestrations for two years, alongside a hectic playing schedule (when we met he was about to fly off to Guatemala with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen).

Firstly he chose the poetry with Elling – who has become a big MacCaig fan in the process. Setting them to music was the greatest challenge, says Smith, and he and Elling went over every one with a pianist: “These poems weren't written to be songs, and it took about a year to find a way to get them into song form. Going through every piece made me very secure about the melodies and Kurt's strength in conveying the message; his enunciation is very clear””

Nevertheless, Smith won't really know how it's going to work until choir, big band and the other musicians meet up the day before the first concert.

In conveying what he intends to be a seasonal invocation of hope and peace, clarity and communication will be paramount: “I don't want it to be above the audience, or esoteric and mumbled, it has to be clear. The message has to get over.”

Spirit of Light is at Glasgow Cathedral, 15 December, St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen, 16 December and St Mary's Episcopalian Cathedral, Edinburgh, 17 December, www.snjo.co.uk