The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland is not yet as impressive a performing ensemble as its classical counterpart, but its annual concert at the MacRobert Centre in Stirling provided evidence that a lot of good work is being done with the young musicians who participate in the orchestra and its associated summer school.
The summer school was established under the aegis of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 1991, but the addition of the NYJOS as a performing big band in 1996 provided a further dimension to the course activities.
The jazz group made substantial progress under the direction of Scotland's most experienced jazz educator, Richard Michael, who has run the ground-breaking Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra (FYJO) for many years, and was closely involved in the development of the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music's recently introduced jazz syllabus. Eddie Severn, who runs the jazz course at Napier University in Edinburgh, took over the directorship of the NYJOS this year.
The concert opened with a lively set from a very youthful quartet from the jazz school at Rostov-on-Don, who were joined by Severn in the unusual role of pianist - his main instrument is trumpet - and Mark Jenkins, one of the NYJOS trumpet players, in a composition which they had developed at summer school.
An ensemble of 11 NYJOS players was less impressive, though there was some fine playing from its leader, Philip Cardwell, a promising trumpet player from Fort William. The group was noticeably tentative and rather lifeless in its approach, which was odd given that they sounded much more confident with the full band and with more demanding material.
The set featured a composition by Severn and two by drummer and composer Tom Bancroft, all of which provided technical, expressive and interpretative challenges. The band coped admirably.
It did so too in four compositions by Duke Ellington, conducted by their saxophone tutor, Laura MacDonald. The ensemble playing and te solo contributions were well organised without being fully professional, but the standard was good.
The concert two days later by the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra at the Glenmorangie Glasgow Jazz Festival suggested what the next step might be for some of the NYJOS players. The SYJO, which has been directed by Bobby Wishart since its inception in 1986, represented a step up from the NYJOS in performance terms, albeit with one or two tutors helping to bolster key areas of the band. The players are slightly older, crisp and punchy in their ensemble playing and are much more accomplished and imaginative in their solos.
The fact that these concerts were taking place at all is indicative of the continuing growth of interest in jazz education. The inclusion of improvisation as an integral part of the secondary school syllabus has been an important factor, as has the development of degree courses at higher education level, including at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and Napier University.
Scotland now has three well-established youth jazz orchestras - the NYJOS, SYJO and FYJO - which not only perform regularly, but also represent the public face of a great deal of specialist formal tuition which is not readily available within the school system. A fourth, the Lothian Schools Jazz Orchestra, is not yet on a par with the leading ensembles, but is the focus of equally strong commitment, and work is advancing in the Highlands too, principally as an extension of the NYJOS's activities.
A number of musicians now performing in Scotland have progressed through one or other of these bands. Laura MacDonald, who is scheduled to record her debut album in New York in September, is herself a product of the youth orchestras, having cut her teeth in the saxophone section of the SYJO before winning a scholarship to Berklee College in Boston. Not many of the current crop of young jazz musicians will be as successful, but she is an illustration of the possibilities, and will be inspiring the NYJOS at the Edinburgh International Jazz and Blues Festival at The Hub on July 20.