TSYJO Concert in Ullapool    Macphail Theatre, 13 September 2012

I DO hope they’ve had someone up there checking the roof at the Macphail this week because the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra must have come very close to blowing it off.

IF YOU weren’t there you can start kicking yourself now, because this review is only going to make you feel worse. What a night! The rain was lashing, the wind was slamming and the loch was boiling under a furious sky. Indoors, though, it was as cool as Fifth Avenue in April, and just as stylish, and as the set opened with a Buddy Rich classic, ‘Love for Sale’, no one in the room was left in a moment’s doubt about the virtuosity of this outfit.

Their precision and cohesion as an ensemble were perfectly matched by the seamless elisions of the featured solo players each of whom demonstrated not just a generous mastery of their instrument but a profoundly mature appreciation of the music. This is a band completely absorbed in its work, already (despite its youth) at home with the genre, and very much at ease in each other’s onstage company.

Two pieces stood out for me. The first, Count Basie’s ‘Hay Burner’, was played with such a delight in its subtlety and such command of the humour of the piece that it really was hard to believe these were musicians only at the start of their careers. To end, they gave us Big Band meets the Modern Jazz Quartet with a sublime arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s lovely ‘Norwegian Wood’. I’ve been whistling it all week.

It wasn’t just the sneakers and jeans and the cool-dude shirts which lent the Macphail a touch of New York’s Lincoln Center on the night. These guys (and one girl) played like Yankee old hands. They wha-whaed like the best, and clearly enjoyed every syncopation, every tempo rise, every subtle shift of mood. Hell, a couple of ‘em even looked like Buddy Holly! All that was missing was a dry, dry martini.

It is invidious to highlight soloists in such a small outfit (there were seventeen musicians on stage) and when all are so accomplished, but I can’t resist particular mention of Ruaridh Pattison (alto saxophone) – make a note of that name because it’ll be household one day – and Kieran McLeod (trombone) whose delight in their own skills never got in the way of masterly performances or attempted to overshadow the brilliance of the rest.

And now I feel I have to mention the others by name because each brought a necessary presence to the whole, from Young Musician of the Year Peter Johnstone on piano, to Joe Williamson (guitar) and Brodie Jarvie on acoustic double bass. John Lowrie was mesmerically restrained and beat-perfect on drums. The four trumpets were led by John Woodham whose solo playing raised the hairs on the back of your neck; and among the trombones was 15 year-old Liam Shorthall who played like a Cotton Club veteran!

I’m guessing that alto sax players never have to work too hard to get girlfriends (or boyfriends). I mean, how sexy is that instrument? Even in its case! Heather McIntosh was an unsung hero(ine) of the evening on baritone saxophone quietly getting on with the occasional oom-pah, and combining in those strident chords, and still managing to maintain a country smile through the entire performance.

Tommy Smith’s direction appears to be the ultimate in laid-back, but the hours in rehearsal are apparent from the complete engagement of every member of the Orchestra. OK, so you weren’t there, and your applause will never be heard on the live recording they’re making of this 10th anniversary tour, but you can get a flavour of what you missed on Emergence, the Orchestra’s latest CD which is out now on Spartacus Records. You could mix yourself that dry martini at home, before you sit to listen.

A date for your diary, too: the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, directed by Tommy Smith, will be at Eden Court on 28 October.

© Stephen Keeler, 2012

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