Tommy Smith Karma
Tommy Smith KARMA (Spartacus Records)
Tommy Smith is well used to introducing new bands. In his twenty-five years and counting career the Scottish saxophonist has led innumerable aggregations; some brief and convened for an album and tour, others even briefer, such as the one-night stand that pitched the young Smith with a team of British jazz hopefuls, comprising pianist Jason Rebello, bassist Tim Harries and both Stacey brothers, guitarist Paul and drummer Jeremy, for a concert whose vitality and invention - all these years on - remains fresh in this writer’s memory.
It’s in the nature of the jazz musician’s life and work, of course, that colleagues come and go while the bandleader pursues a determined path.
The band, KARMA, which features on this disc, however, marks not only a new line-up but an entirely new direction for Smith and once again it’s marked by vitality and invention. Smith calls this his grunge band and it’s not difficult to imagine Smith and the gang tearing up a sweaty club with their funky acid jazz, sandwiched between DJ sets aimed at packing the dance floor with gyrating bodies. And lest the heart rate should rise to concerning levels, there are also tracks here that constitute a chill-out zone.
The name KARMA reflects Smith’s ongoing interest in spiritual matters that has inspired such works as his 1999 composition Torah, which he wrote for fellow saxophonist Joe Lovano. Karma is the law of moral causation, a belief that, although central to Buddhism, actually predates the Buddha’s arrival and examines the causes of inequality – in personal characteristics as well as health and wealth - among mankind.
KARMA the album follows this belief with each track representing a different idea associated with Karmic philosophy. The ten pieces were written in the sequence in which they appear here, with Smith paying particular attention to the pacing of the running order, and when they were premiered in Edinburgh in 2010 they immediately marked a new stage in Smith’s journey as a composer. There’s a concision and directness at work in compositions such as Cause and Effect and Good Deed that suggest an urgency to engage and communicate with his audience, be they long-time observers or younger heads attracted by the youthful bounce and brio that the band produces.
Smith conceived KARMA’s style through listening to American guitarist Wayne Krantz and metal music – Megadeth are big favourites but by no means the only such band in his collection at home – and he also acknowledges the influences on this music of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Weather Report, the latter’s presence being particularly prominent on Good Deed. When forming the band he looked to two musicians whom he’d known since they were just starting out, pianist and keyboards player Steve Hamilton and drummer Alyn Cosker, and whom he knew, having worked with them regularly over the years, would bring enthusiasm and dedication as well as virtuosity to this music.
In bass guitarist Kevin Glasgow, a more recent acquaintance, Smith found a player who could also negotiate no end of intricacies and bring huge amounts of emotion and harmonic variation to his improvising and yet maintain the punch and rhythm section drive that would give KARMA, to allude to a previous Smith band’s nomenclature, its irresistible forward motion.
If Glasgow’s introduction to Star, which is based on an Irish folk song that Smith has reworked into a slow air, illustrates his ability to contribute parts associated more with a guitarist than a bass guitarist, then his solo on Projection is determinedly in the bass clef, although a long way advanced from the bass guitarist’s beginner’s manual, and his duelling with Cosker on the jubilant Cause and Effect is as inspired as it is thrillingly confrontational.
Hamilton’s long association with Smith takes in not only the saxophonist’s previous album, Forbidden Fruit, but also 1990s recordings such as Misty Morning and No Time and Beasts of Scotland, after which he toured with musicians including Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Henderson and Percy Sledge from bases in London and Sofia. Before returning to live and work in Scotland, Hamilton was a crucial member of drummer Bill Bruford’s Earthworks during the years around the turn of the century and his playing here, notably on the title track, often calls to mind the kind of alertness he brought to Earthworks’ similarly restless, searching music.
Providing another link with Forbidden Fruit, Cosker’s startling adaptability and dynamism shine throughout KARMA, be it kicking the funky groove on Karma itself with its abrupt tempo changes, or playing with great restraint on the tricky metre than underpins the very Scottish sounding Land of Heroes. The hand drum that propels Tomorrow, a Yemeni folk song that Smith learned while touring there in 2003, however, is actually played by the group’s other percussionist, Hamilton, who drums in a blues band in his time away from the keyboard.
KARMA’s penultimate track shifts the accent appropriately to Japan and finds Smith playing an instrument that, although he often plays it when touring with the Norwegian bass master Arild Andersen’s trio, featured only rarely in his own music until recently. Then in 2010, when Smith was composing his World of the Gods suite for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in collaboration with the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, he turned to a gift that he had received from a friend, Wally Evans, ten years previously. The Shakuhachi bamboo flute that you hear introducing Sun is that gift. The arrival, at last, in Smith’s recorded repertoire of an instrument whose history is indelibly linked with Buddhism – it was considered a religious tool by Zen monks in the 16th century – may well have an explanation that chimes with KARMA.
CD available from www.spartacusrecords.com