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Pianist's band is still jazz but with strings attached
If any legal problems arise during SymphRONica’s Fringe run at the Scottish Arts Club, the band’s leader, Ron Davis, shouldn’t be fazed. Davis has a degree in law that he still calls upon from time to time in Toronto to subsidise his jazz experiments.
It’s part of a background that includes piano studies with a teacher who was taught by both Oscar Peterson and David Saperton, who was not only George Gershwin’s brother-in-law but who could trace his pianistic lineage back to Beethoven, and an interest in pop music that began with the Beatles and continues with Cold Play and other contemporary bands.
“I’m not sure if you’ll hear law in the music, although it’s certainly helped me to create it,” says Davis via Skype from Canada. “But all that other stuff – and more – has fed into what I play with the band. These days it’s not all that unusual, in fact it’s quite easy, to have a playlist on your phone or wherever that will take you from, say, Bach to Rhianna. And it’s great that that’s happening but I had the public lending library to thank for nurturing my catholic taste because they let you borrow vinyl and one week I’d be listening to Beethoven, the next Art Tatum and so on.”
From his conversation it sounds like Davis wasn’t neglecting his studies of the classics either. Roman and Greek heroes and heroines flow easily through his chat and he’s keen to point out that symph is Greek for with, an important consideration in naming SymphRONica. His own first name may be prominent in the band’s title but he’s not about to forget all the other ingredients that go into making a SymphRONica performance.
“I’m actually very hands off,” he says. “I have a musical director, Kevin Barrett, who plays guitar in the band and is responsible for getting the music as close to perfection as possible onstage, and as well as playing cover versions of pop songs, a Sephardic folk song, something by Ralph Vaughan Williams and a jazz standard, I’m happy for other musicians in the band to bring in compositions and arrangements. So it’s not all about me.”
SymphRONica arrived some fifteen years ago after a long gestation period. Having reached a stage where he was financially able to play music more than practise law, Davis had become established in Toronto as the leader of his own jazz trio, quartet and sextet. It had long been his intention to blend the classical music he trained in with the jazz that was, and is, his passion. There was no shortage of examples for him to follow - Charlie Parker with Strings, Stan Getz’s Focus to name but two – but he wanted to experiment with something different.
Enter the Runcible Spoon, five women based in Toronto whose pianist, Tania Gill, Davis describes as “an undersung genius at music’s cutting edge.” The group’s instrumentation – cello, clarinet, voice, viola and piano – intrigued Davis and he started working on string arrangements with Gill. This led to an album, Shimmering Rhythm, which pitched viola, cello and two clarinets in with Davis’s jazz trio and in turn led to the first iteration of SymphRONica, which was Davis’s jazz trio with a full symphony orchestra.
“For obvious financial reasons, but also for musical ones, I pared this down to a string quartet with an electro-acoustic jazz quartet – piano, guitar, bass and drums – because I wanted all the players to have an input,” he says. “I also liked the idea that, as an octet, we could include different styles of music and switch from a jazz standard or something based on I Got Rhythm to a folk tune more naturally than with an orchestra and yet still have a certain richness of sound.”
In Canada most of SymphRONica’s work is in Toronto, so Davis has the luxury of working with a regular personnel that has developed the music to a high quality. Touring abroad, which involves the core trio of Davis, Barrett and violinist Aline Homzy recruiting local players to make up the octet, could be open to the risk of not finding musicians with quite the same openness but has thrown up some pleasant surprises. On their previous Fringe mission last year, they encountered Alyn Cosker, drummer with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and dozens of other projects, who will be with them again this time.
“Generally we’ve been lucky to get musicians with the vision to make the music happen,” says Davis. “But Alyn went beyond that. When we played the first number in rehearsal, Kevin and I looked at each other and mouthed ‘Wow.’ We didn’t have to tell Alyn what we wanted because he just made it his own. We’ve developed some new music since then, including a piece by our regular cellist that’s kind of Bach meets heavy metal, and we can’t wait to hear how Alyn makes that sound.”
SymphRONica plays the Scottish Arts Club in Rutland Square from August 14 to 26.
From The Herald, August 9, 2017
Smith rises to the Coltrane challenge
Tommy Smith is celebrating turning fifty with two challenges. Firstly, this week at Rochester Jazz Festival in New York, the saxophonist is playing his first-ever solo concert.
Smith has played onstage by himself many times before. In the early noughties he toured his Alone at Last project to over forty venues across Scotland and further afield, working with soprano and tenor saxophones and samples of his late friend and collaborator Edwin Morgan’s poetry, natural sounds and special effects. He has also recorded alone, on his 2001 album Into the Silence, which saw him working with what was at one time the longest echo in the world in Hamilton Mausoleum.
The Rochester concert, however, will be his first time “playing with no help”, as he puts it, in front of an audience and it’s something he finds scary but at the same time, exciting.
“I’ve seen some great saxophonists playing completely solo and even someone like Michael Brecker, who used awesome virtuosity and fantastic technique to prolong his compositions in that setting, played too many notes,” he says. “It’s a really big challenge and there’s the temptation to fill the space available because you’re exposed by the silence, but to me space is important. It gives you time to reflect on what you’ve just played and what you’re about to play. It lets the music breathe. If you just play constantly, for the audience it’s like listening to someone talking non-stop, twenty to the dozen, and that can just get annoying.”
As with everything he does, Smith will have put much thought and preparation into his essentially improvised “naked saxophone” recital and in a way his reliance, in performance, on his imagination and especially on the pure, unamplified sound of his instrument is related to the second challenge he has taken on.
Back in February, Smith decided that the time was right to face something he’d been putting off almost since he began his career, a tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, John Coltrane. With the fiftieth anniversary of the great saxophonist’s death approaching on July 17 and conscious of his own mortality, Smith put a new quartet together to record an album comprising some of Coltrane’s best loved compositions and a few of his own pieces written in dedication to the master.
“It’s something that saxophonists do on every significant anniversary and I could have done one at any time, I suppose,” he says. “I actually recorded Coltrane’s classic Giant Steps on my first album, Giant Strides, when I was sixteen, but I’ve never felt ready to do a full-length tribute. I’m not sure I’m ready now, to be honest. Coltrane died when he was forty and here I am at fifty, still not playing at his level, but I felt, if I don’t do it now, I might never get round to it.”
He remembers his first exposure to Coltrane, as a teenage saxophonist in Edinburgh, and it didn’t go well. Up until this point Smith had been listening to Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon, players of an older school to Coltrane. He was inquisitive, though, and was already holding down a residency with his group at La Grenoille in Abercromby Place. So he saved up money from his weekly gig - £5 a time minus expenses such as reeds and bus fares – and went into a record shop in Cockburn Street. There he saw an album cover with Coltrane looking cool on it, sitting holding a soprano saxophone, and he decided to buy it.
When he got the album home and played it, he took it off after two bars.
“It was horrible,” he says. “I skipped through the tracks and just couldn’t get my head round what this guy was doing. So I put it back in the bag, got on the bus – it was a long way from Wester Hailes to Cockburn Street – and took it back to the shop but the guy in the shop refused to give me a refund or exchange it. Eventually, as my ear developed, I got into it – it was called Ascension – but it took some time.”
Someone, it might have been fellow saxophonist and broadcaster Gordon Cruickshank, pointed Smith towards Blue Trane, an earlier Coltrane album that was more conventional than the free jazz-slanted Ascension and showcased the rich sound and passion that Coltrane brought to everything he played without his later full-on intensity. Blue Trane became Smith’s entry point into a player whose music he has returned to constantly over the years.
Fast forward to February this year and Smith has called together pianist Peter Johnstone and bassist Calum Gourlay, two young musicians he has brought on through his own youth orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, an old colleague with whom Smith worked extensively in the early years of this century.
With no preparation – Smith sent all three their parts ahead of the recording – they went into the Castlesound studio in Pencaitland, just outside Edinburgh, and produced the imminent Embodying the Light over four or five hours.
“We’d never all played together before but I knew they were a group of good spirits with good energy,” he says. “The session was exhausting, because the concentration levels were intense, but it was fun, too, and considering we met in the studio, the album turned out well.”
The new group made its public debut in a short concert before an invited audience for BBC Radio Scotland’s new jazz programme, Jazz Nights at the Quay in early April. Smith, whose diary contains work with Norwegian double bass master Arild Andersen’s trio and pianist Brian Kellock, as well as his commitments with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s jazz course, has been itching to show it off in more detail since then.
He gets his wish at Edinburgh Jazz Festival next month and then has concerts booked throughout Scotland and beyond in the late summer and into the autumn. As with his solo saxophone concert the new group will feature the natural sound of their instruments only, something that Smith has been very keen on for some time. His duo with Brian Kellock eschews PA systems in favour of a more intimate presentational style and in Arild Andersen’s trio only the bass, which uses sound effects, is generally amplified.
“A few years ago my quartet at the time was about to start a concert when the PA blew up,” says Smith. “So we just went ahead and played without any amplification and we all listened harder and played better. The audience response was very positive too. It depends on having a drummer who can play really intensely without being too loud and a bass player with a big sound, which the new quartet has. The pianos we use have to be big enough to carry to the back of the hall and finding those can sometimes be difficult. But I much prefer playing acoustically because the audience gets to hear the true sound of the band – we sound the way we are.”
Tommy Smith Quartet: Embodying the Light tours from September 26.
Embodying the Light is released on Spartacus Records.
From The Herald, June 30, 2017
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