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Scottish National Jazz Orchestra featuring the Mugyenko Taiko Drummers

RSAMD, 10th April 2010

The lights went down. A haze of smoke hung over the stage of the RSAMD. From different corners of the hall, the three members of the Mugyenko Taiko Orchestra wandered towards the stage, producing an unearthly high pitched sound by stroking the edge of the bells they were carrying. So began one of the most theatrical jazz concerts put on in Glasgow since Sun Ra’s Arkestra landed in the Mitchell Theatre.

The SNJO set up stage left, with an array of exotic Japanese drums to their right. At the back of this section were four relatively conventional drums, a bit like wooden versions of western floor toms. In front of those were three drums which looked like polished barrels, which could either be played standing on their end, or on their side with both drum heads accessible. Tucked away almost in the wings was a large gong. In the rear corner, towering over proceedings, was the stand which held the huge Odaiko drum, about the diameter of a pipe band’s bass drum but far longer, with its playing surface high above the drummer’s head so that he had to reach up to strike it.

The set consisted of a suite “The World of the Gods” by Tommy Smith, made up of ten pieces each inspired by a different Shinto deity. It maybe wasn’t the most melodically memorable music the band have ever played, but there were some very interesting orchestral sounds: he seemed fond of getting the sax section to use high-pitched instruments, so that instead of the normal two tenors and two altos, we frequently got flute, clarinet and two sopranos. Several of the band got the chance to stretch out on long solos: as well as Smith himself, we heard trumpeters Ryan Quigley and Richard Iles, Steve Hamilton on keyboards, Calum Gourlay on bass, Phil O’Malley on trombone, Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor, Martin Kershaw on alto, Paul Towndrow on soprano and Chris Greive playing tribute to his Australian roots with a nifty didgeridoo solo.

For much of the performance, though, it was the Taiko drummers (two women and a man) who caught the eye. They had a very theatrical style of performing, standing with legs wide apart, and moving gracefully in a way which seemed to turn playing their instruments into a particularly noisy form of tai chi. For much of the time Alyn Cosker played along with them, so that in effect we had a percussion quartet with a big band playing over the top of them.

I’m not quite sure how interesting this music would have been to listen to at home on a CD, but live it was certainly a most striking show. As Rob Adams says in his Herald review, it would go down well at festivals. Incidentally, the picture of the Mugyenko Taiko Drummers which accompanies his review is a standard publicity shot, not a photo from this concert, where they were wearing black cotton jackets and trousers which looked like judo or karate wear.