An inspirational summer school has helped Scotland's young jazz players push beyond the conventional aims of music teaching. Kenny Mathieson was witness to their achievements
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland gave its annual summer concert at the MacRobert Centre in Stirling last Saturday. In terms of the way youth jazz ensembles have operated in Scotland until now, the results were a revelation and triumphantly vindicated the new approach taken by the orchestra's administrator, Caroline Thompson.
The change has been gradual, bringing in tutors with fresh attitudes to what a youth orchestra should be doing and commissioning pieces for the players. Pianist Nikki Yeoh wrote a work for them two years ago. The Stirling concert featured newly commissioned pieces by Laura MacDonald, John Rae and Tom Bancroft, and all three will be repeated in Edinburgh later this month with two more commissions, from Chick Lyall and Mario Caribe.
Stock big band arrangements have disappeared from the repertoire: the pianist Simon Purcell, who is course director this year, says they represent an older, more traditional way of doing things. His philosophy is very different, he explained during the orchestra's week-long residential summer school at Glasgow University St Andrew's campus in Bearsden.
"What we are trying to do here is to realise the creative potential of the students, and for that matter the tutors as well. We want to look beyond the traditional way of going about it, focusing on improvisation and on developing their own aesthetic, rather than just learning to play neat charts in a neat way."
The self-discovery ethos was evident in the workshops. The 50 or so students were of mixed ability, ranging from those almost new to jazz through to pianist James Cairney and trumpeter Philip Cardwell, who have already made their professional debuts (though still in their teens). Purcell did not see that as a problem.
"They are a very mixed group but they are all full of desire and it has been great to see even the least experienced trying to give it a real go, both in the workshop sessions and in the jazz club we run in the evenings, where staff and students all play. We want to tap into that desire and improvisation is the perfect mixed ability mechanism because the least experienced and the most sophisticated can all contribute at their own levels.
"A lot of the seeds we are planting this week will blossom later."
This does not mean the basics were neglected. The workshops focused equally on reinforcing fundamental elements of jazz playing, the vital precursor to self-expression.
The concert featured several small groups from the summer school as well as the orchestra, playing versions of works by Miles Davis, Benny Golson and Herbie Hancock through to compositions by the students.
The growing momentum of the performances came to a head in Tom Bancroft's "Fear is Not the Key". It was at times deliberately chaotic but also inspirational, allowing the players - who had contributed to its creation - to express themselves in a context which demanded disciplined ensemble playing.
They followed it with an equally impressive arrangement of the South African national anthem, led by piano tutor Nikki Iles, and featuring a much expanded version of the orchestra, including many of the younger students. Alto saxophonist Claire Paterson, one of the younger students, stood up and blew a dazzling solo that would have been impressive from a player twice her age.
The tutors on this year's course, who included Tom Bancroft, Julian Arguelles, Phil Bancroft, Eddie Severn, John Gourlay, Mike Walker, Malcolm Earle Smith and Steve Watts, have done a remarkable job, second only to the students.
Purcell makes the point that working in this way is not an easier option. If anything, he sees it as more challenging for the tutors and students, but it was clear in the workshops and the concert that everyone loved it.
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland will play at The Hub, Edinburgh, on July 29, 12.30pm, as part of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. NYJoS, tel 0141 332 8311