Tommy Smith - Going for the natural sound


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 scheduled 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. “I did actually play solo once when the guy I was meant to be playing a duet with at a festival got held up and I had to start by myself. 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.”

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