Review: Bobby Wellins/SNJO: The Culloden Moor & Caledonian Suites

Bobby Wellins/SNJO, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Saturday October 29th ****

You’d be forgiven for thinking that by night three of a four-concert tour, 75-year-old tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins might be flaggging – but that was far from the case when he and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played on Saturday night.

This was a tour-de-force performance – and not just in the actual playing; but in the composition of the music too. The focal point of the evening was Wellins’s Culloden Moor, originally written back in 1964, but only now arranged, by Florian Ross, into a suite for the full band.

It proved to be an utterly compelling piece of music: evocative, dramatic and harnessing the haunting quality that is a key characteristic of the Wellins sound. The atmospheric and eerie opening and closing movements suggested the influence of the arranger Gil Evans, but it was the section entitled The March – which kicked off with everyone in the band stomping their feet before swinging into action, and peaked with an extended, show-stealing, snare drum solo (by Alyn Cosker) – that pinned punters to the edge of their seats. The overall effect was absolutely elecrifying, reminiscent of the opening track of one of the great Duke Ellington suites of the 1950s: hell, this was Anatomy of a Massacre.

How to follow that? Well, it might have been better not to: the Caledonian Suite of the second half certainly had its moments – notably The Tartan Rainbow and The Wind That Shakes the Barley – but Culloden Moor was the talking point of the night, and the music that most of us would have liked to have had ringing in our ears as we went home.

First published in The Scotsman, Monday October 31st.

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