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Reviews / Review: ‘Nothing short of astonishing’

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra - 'mind-boggling' - Photos: Davie Gardner

Debate may continue regarding Mareel’s events programme, and specifically that not every event promoted there is packed to the rafters – but what venue anywhere could boast that?

However, a bumper crowd on Thursday night for Seth Lakeman, a pending sell-out on Saturday for Big Country (with our very own Revellers in support), plus, sandwiched in between, a sell-out crowd for a Friday night of top quality music courtesy of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, with Tommy Smith on saxophone and Brian Kellock on piano, isn’t a bad return, I would suggest.

Jeff Merrifield aka ‘Dr Jazz’ (the ‘Duracell Bunny’ of the Shetland jazz scene) took to the stage resplendent in white jacket to introduce the evening, billed as The Spirit of Ellington – with Smith and Kellock’s own major arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Jeff enthused about the night to come in his own inimitable fashion. “Wonderful”, “fabulous” and “marvellous” were just three of the superlatives he used. If his exuberance for the music could be turned into euros this man could singlehandedly wipe out the Greek national debt.

“We’re on the last night of our tour, so we’re all very drunk,” joked orchestra leader Tommy Smith, perhaps the finest sax player in the UK today, as the band launched into Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy. This was followed by Sweet Velvet, written for the Queen in 1955 – who Ellington apparently had a bit of a crush on).

More tunes in the Spirit of Ellington followed, ranging from the frantic Daybreak Express to the passionate Prelude to a Kiss, with, from time to time, musical side-dalliances into special arrangements, including Grieg’s classics Hall of the Mountain King and Morning, plus Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

Brian Kellock and Tommy Smith.

It takes a big man to fill Duke Ellington’s shoes on piano, but Brian Kellock IS a big man and more than up to such a daunting task. He’s a national treasure and nothing short of a wizard on the instrument.

And the orchestra rarely fell short of mind-boggling, with solo after solo drawing enthusiastic applause from the large audience. Smith has clearly inherited Ellington’s talents as a bandleader. No mean feat, and, yes, that good!

Then it was time to close the first half with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. What followed was a wonderfully protracted version, laden with improvisational dexterity. Smith described it as “an arrangement of an arrangement of an orchestration of an arrangement”. Whatever, it was astonishing.

Smith and Kellock teamed up again early in the second half with such intensity and ferocity it threatened to blister the varnish off the Mareel auditorium. Other tunes, including Ellington’s classic Mood Indigo, were eerily and spine-tinglingly beautiful in their delivery.

The show climaxed with more Ellington standards, winning a richly deserved standing ovation, before the inevitable encore demands were answered with Sepia Panorama and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.

“When we first came here all those years ago we used to sit up playing till around three in the morning with the likes of Peerie Willie,” recalled Smith, “so we’ve only got another 50 tunes to go now!” Everyone seemed disappointed that he was only joking.

So, yes indeed, Dr Jazz it was wonderful, fabulous and marvellous as you quite rightly predicted at the outset of the evening. It was quite simply a fantastic night of music, courtesy of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the most committed promoter in the business – not forgetting the Shetland Jazz Club committee too, of course.

Davie Gardner