‘Where Rivers Meet’ is a celebration of adventurous improvised music and it offers us a fresh window into the works of three departed titans (one still among us). The composers examined are Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Dewey Redman and Anthony Braxton, and while the spirit of these extraordinary musicians is evoked, this should not be regarded as a retrospective. What the SNJO have achieved is an in-the-moment exaltation of free spirits. The charts and performances are living breathing entities, rooted in the now.
This is another waypoint on the open-ended journey that Coleman, Ayler, Redman and Braxton embarked upon. A journey that had no final destination in mind and the SNJO has approached these suites in that same enquiring spirit. Improvised music is at its best when it is not time-locked.
Were lesser hands involved, it could be risky to combine arranged orchestral music with compositions that are famously organic, but here, it works well. The orchestration is never overdone and it adds contrast and unexpected texture to these vibrant open tunes. The charts were orchestrated by four arrangers, Tommy Smith, Geoffrey Keezer, Paul Towndrow and Paul Harrison. Each suite is made up of three tunes by the composers and there are four soloing saxophonists involved, each tackling a different suite.
The SNJO was established by Smith in 1995 and it is regarded as one of the pre-eminent jazz orchestras in Europe. It is also one of the most innovative. No matter what your taste in improvised music, you will find much to enjoy in this album. Ornette Coleman’s “Peace’ is a familiar and much-loved standard and the rendition by Towndrow is fabulous (on alto). The same applies to Dewey Redman’s lovely ‘Joie De Livre’ (Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor), or Ayler’s ‘Going Home’ (Tommy Smith on tenor).
The meatier out-material is there also, Martin Kershaw is outstanding on the Braxton suite. I love this and ‘Composition 245’ especially. This is pure exaltation and Kershaw is killing. Here the spirit of Braxton shines brightest: minimalism, keening reeds, discordant joyfulness, space, tantalisingly distant vocalisations, swooping descents into quiet. Smiths sensitive, gorgeous rendition of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ is in a similar spirit.
The performance took place in St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh while the gifted Russian expressionist, Maria Rud painted the cover artworks in real time (and in the presence of the orchestra). Spontaneous conversations between open art forms is the new realty and executed perfectly here. While there were no audience members present due to COVID, the artists have somehow magicked us into this hallowed space.
It also is nice to see some younger players alongside the veterans. I have been following James Copus rise with considerable interest. A wonderful player with an abundance of interesting ideas to communicate.
Anyone who follows JazzLocal32.com will know that I endeavour to keep a focus on local improvised music, or that of Aotearoa in general. In this case, there is a strong local connection between the SNJO, Smith, and Wellington drummer John Rae. Smith and Rae formed their first band in Edinburgh when Rae was 14 and later they recorded together. Between 2000 and 2003, Rae was the SNJO drummer.
The album was recorded in Edinburgh but it crosses a multitude of borders. Reminding me that local is about more than mere geography. Local can be a community of interest, a connectedness – beyond borders. The degree of separation is minimal in the Jazz world anyhow. Perhaps, Dave Holland put it best when he pled, ‘let’s not over-analyse the nationalist tendencies in Jazz’. No matter where we are from, it’s how well, and how authentically we tell our story. This is truly great music, universal music, full stop.
To purchase visit the SNJO site or the SNJO Bandcamp page http://www.snjo.bandcamp.com
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.