by Ian Mann
July 10, 2020
Immaculately written, arranged, played & recorded this is an impressive piece of work. United by a loose thematic concept the individual pieces hang together like a suite, coming together convincingly
“Things Happened Here”
Giacomo Smith – alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet Joe Webb – piano, Ferg Ireland – bass, Will Cleasby – drums Pete Horsfall – trumpet, Alec Harper – tenor sax, Dave Archer - guitar
Kansas Smitty’s is a bar and music venue in Broadway Market, Hackney, East London that has played a key role in the current jazz revival that, in London at least, has seen a younger audience being attracted to the music.
Both the venue and the band of the same name are the brainchild of the Italian/American saxophonist and clarinettist Giacomo Smith.
Born in Italy, raised in upstate New York and now a fully professional jazz musician in the UK Smith is an interesting character with degrees in classical clarinet performance from the North American Universities of Boston and McGill (Montreal). He first moved to the UK in 2011 to work in Boston University’s London Programmes administrative office, but spent his evenings absorbing himself in the London jazz scene, playing with many of the UK’s leading jazz musicians before eventually turning pro in 2013 and concentrating on the music full time.
It was then that he formed the band that was to become Kansas Smitty’s, a group of young musicians with an interest in a broad range of jazz styles. A couple of years later the basement venue itself was opened and has since played host to many of the emerging stars of the young and vibrant London jazz scene including saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, keyboard player Joe Armon Jones, drummer Moses Boyd and many more. The rise of Kansas Smitty’s has coincided with that of South London’s Steam Down venue, with much cross fertilisation occurring between the two scenes.
I have to admit that living away from London much of the buzz surrounding Kansas Smitty’s (and Steam Down for that matter) has rather passed me by. However I did have the pleasure of seeing Smith performing, exclusively on clarinet, as part a one off quartet featuring guitarists Remi Harris and Denny Ilett and bassist Simon Smith (no relation) in October 2017 at The Hatch, Harris’ venue in rural Worcestershire. That show, with its focus on swing and gypsy standards, confirmed Giacomo’s undoubted abilities as a player and was a cut above most performances of that type and my account of a remarkable evening can be read here;
That performance, plus the Kansas Smitty’s name, led me to assume that the group was basically a revivalist outfit with the emphasis on swing and trad. Being generally inclined to more contemporary styles of jazz I still didn’t rush to check out the Kansas Smitty’s House Band as they were then still known.
However a glance at the band’s personnel suggests that they are about far more than that. Its individual members are involved in projects right across the jazz spectrum, pianist Joe Webb with guitarist Rob Luft’s band for example. So yes, the playing of old style jazz and swing is an important part of what Kansas Smitty’s do and their love of that music is obvious. Also as college trained musicians they play it with an astonishing degree of technical skill, whilst still retaining its essential energy and excitement.
However as this new album reveals they are also more than capable of writing and performing original music. Now working under the truncated name Kansas Smitty’s “Things Happened Here” represents the band’s fourth full length album release.
This time round the focus is exclusively on original material written by Giacomo Smith. The album has a loosely conceptual theme as Smith explains;
“Once in a while you feel this overwhelming sense of a memory that you aren’t able to describe but that transports you immediately back to a time and space. Like the smell of your grandma’s living room when you were a kid, the faint sound of a train passing past your first apartment’s window at 5.00 am, or meeting a friend’s child that resembles a long lost friend. Only you can feel that, and only very few things bring you back to that space. It’s not every day this happens. This is the kind of feeling I wanted to create for the record.”
The Kansas Smitty’s website describes the concept behind the album thus;
“Referring to the feeling one gets when walking into an old house, ancient temple, abandoned factory or any space once lived and familiar, now foreign and contrasting, ‘Things Happened Here’ is the culmination of years spent defining a sound steeped in jazz history, yet present and future-facing to the sounds of tomorrow”.
The album opens with “Riders”, which commences with Smith’s circling bass clarinet motif. This helps to give the piece a seductively noirish feel as Smith combines with the horns of Horsfall and Harper and the guitar of Archer. It’s Archer that takes the first solo, his stealthy chording skilfully augmented by Webb at the piano and Smith’s bass clarinet, which snakes its way, like a river, throughout the piece. This is a subtly compelling introduction that has evoked comparisons with a 1960s French Cinema soundtrack.
The mood continues into the following “Dreamlane” with its mellifluous blend of horns, with Smith this time on conventional clarinet. His writing, and particularly the way he orchestrates and arranges the instruments at his disposal, has evoked comparisons with Duke Ellington, and rightly so. The combination here of Smith’s clarinet and Harper’s tenor is irresistible and the way the guitar and the piano are also skilfully woven into the arrangement are masterful. Meanwhile Ireland’s melodic double bass is featured as a solo instrument, the subtlety of his playing complemented by Cleasby’s colourations from the kit.
Archer’s guitar introduces “Two Dancers”, a suitably intimate performance featuring the seductive, slinky sounds of Smith’s clarinet, Harper’s tenor and Cleasby’s brushed drums.
The title of “Sambre et Meuse” was inspired by a World War 1 battle ground at the confluence of two Belgian rivers. Taking musical inspiration from Dizzy Gillespie it combines the album’s now established noirish moods with more urgent, upbeat, swinging episodes in an impressive display of contrasting styles and dynamics, with Cleasby’s drums featuring towards the close.
The introduction to “Alcazar” places the focus on Horsfall’s trumpet but it’s the leader’s bass clarinet that subsequently helps to bring an appropriately Moorish feel to the music. Those with an ear for fine detail will also relish Webb’s piano embellishments and Cleasby’s drum colourations.
The rousing “Temple of Bel” is named for a Roman temple that suffered destruction during the ongoing Syrian conflict. Smith’s anger at this act of cultural vandalism finds expression in a riff based composition featuring punchy, braying, horns, clangorous guitar and pummelling drums.
Archer’s insistent, proto-metal guitar riff helps to fuel a powerful solo from Harper on tenor, while Horsfall’s blazing trumpet is also prominent in the arrangement. It’s the albums most dynamic and energetic offering thus far.
Also released as a single “Sunnyland” was written in honour of the Mississippi blues pianist Sunnyland Slim (1906-95). The piece has even achieved a degree of radio play thanks to its catchy combination of New Orleans and Township inspired riffs, the hooky unison horn lines underpinned by Webb’s rolling piano vamp and the funky grooves of Ireland and Cleasby, these two eventually coming to the fore in an arresting bass and drum dialogue.
The title track announces itself in a series of horn fanfares and mallet rumbles, these eventually subsiding to leave Webb alone at the piano. He is then joined by Ireland and Cleasby as the music begins to build again, initially in piano trio mode, with Webb the featured soloist. Subtle horn interventions add colour and texture as the music continues to develop, eventually coming full circle, the structure of the piece perhaps reflecting the overall album concept.
The album concludes with the sinister atmospherics of “Judgement”, a New Orleans flavoured blues featuring the distinctive sounds of Archer’s guitar alongside the wailing of the horns and the implacable march of the rhythm section, as pianist Webb weaves his way in and out.
Immaculately written, arranged, played and recorded “Things Happened Here” is an impressive piece of work. United by a loose thematic concept the individual pieces hang together like a suite, coming together to create a convincing whole.
Despite the retro trappings the music also has a very contemporary feel and resonance, the unifying theme might be one of nostalgia, but this doesn’t sound anything like a revivalist exercise.
Smith impresses hugely as both a writer and a musician and his colleagues also play superbly throughout. As an album “Things Happened Here” has certainly opened my eyes to the quality of Kansas Smitty’s’ music.
I had planned to check out the band at Cheltenham Jazz Festival back in May, an event that was inevitably cancelled due to Covid-19. I assume that they would have been playing this material, so hearing this album has only heightened my sense of disappointment. Hopefully I will be able to catch up with the band, maybe even at their Hackney home, at some point in the future.
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