by Ian Mann
March 17, 2023
Kansas Smitty’s most mature and varied offering to date. The music is impressively varied in terms of style, colour, rhythm and texture and both the writing and the playing is excellent throughout.
“We’re Not In Kansas Anymore”
(Ever Records EVER103CD)
Giacomo Smith – alto sax, clarinets, Alec Harper – tenor sax, flute, Dylan Jones – trumpet, Laura Jurd – trumpet, David Archer – guitar, Joe Webb – piano, Ferg Ireland – bass, Will Cleasby drums
A rather late review for the latest album from Kansas Smitty’s, which originally appeared in October 2022. It represents the band’s fifth studio album and follows 2020’s impressive “Things Happened Here” (also Ever Records), which is reviewed here;
Kansas Smitty’s is he 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. Styling themselves as a kind of musical collective the band subsequently opened its own bar and music venue, also called Kansas Smitty’s, in Broadway Market, Hackney, East London.
For five years the basement venue 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.
Unfortunately the Covid pandemic meant that Kansas Smitty’s had to cease as a music venue, although the band itself continues. During lockdown the Smitty’s crew established KSTV, a new, award winning online space for live jazz that allowed the band members to collaborate remotely with other musicians, among them trumpeter Laura Jurd who returns the favour by appearing on this new recording.
In 2022 I witnessed a performance by the band at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival. It was a good musical performance marred by the poor acoustics of the Town Hall venue, always a difficult location in which to obtain a good live sound. The core line up was joined by Jurd and by the American guitarist / vocalist Sam Amidon in a set that included a number of items from “Things Happened Here” plus a few of newer tunes, notably “Skyline”, “Sunday Davidson” and “Cha U Kao”, that appear on this latest recording. My account of this performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
Prior to Smitty’s Cheltenham Festival appearance I had previously seen 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.
It wasn’t really until I heard “Things Happened Here” that I found out that there was far more to them than that. The album had a surprisingly contemporary sound and overall I was very impressed with it, hence my determination to check them out live at Cheltenham, a Festival with whom they have established very strong links.
“We’re Not In Kansas Anymore” finds the band building upon the success of “Things Happened Here” and also moving further and further away from their swing and trad roots as Smith’s album liner notes explain;
“I’m not from Kansas, nor have I been there. On top of that no-one in the band has ever been to Kansas. Even better Kansas City isn’t even in Kansas. So what have we been on about for all these years?
Kansas City is where jazz grew up. Soloists were encouraged to express themselves in jam sessions that ran for hours on end. String basses walked four beats and drummers banged on hi-hats. Count Basie refined swing and Charlie Parker invented bebop. This was the music that brought Kansas Smitty’s together and gave us our name.
It’s been a decade since we formed the band. We’ve taken our foundation in KC jazz far from its roots. It’s up to you to decide where you let your mind go while listening. But one thing’s for sure, we’re not in Kansas anymore”.
The band line up shows one significant change since the previous album with trumpeter Peter Horsfall having left the group. In his absence trumpet duties are shared between Dylan Jones (Ezra Collective) and Laura Jurd.
The new album celebrates Kansas Smitty’s tenth anniversary as a band and, as its title suggests, adds classic cinema to its broad range of musical influences. Says Smith;
“I want people to feel a big range of emotion - I want people to see things”, says Smith. “There’s joy and there’s humour, but there’s also spirituality. There’s seriousness, there’s loss and longing - and those are all there on purpose. We’ve experienced them as a collective and I’ve experienced them as an individual”.
The album commences with “Bokeh”, jointly composed by Ireland, Smith, Jones and Harper. It’s a piece that begins with a kind of ‘minimalist horn chorale’ before adopting a broken beat groove featuring the distinctive sound of Cleasby’s drums and percussion, these also exhibiting a strong African influence. The blending of these various elements is intended to create a cinematic effect, which on the whole succeeds well. Space is also found for the individual soloists to stretch out with Harper on tenor followed by Jones on trumpet. It’s a strong piece of collaborative writing that combines minimalism, hip hop and African rhythms in an intriguing and highly effective mix.
Jointly written by Smith and Harper “Sunday Davidson” was one of the tunes that was featured at Cheltenham and it is also a piece that has been released as a single. The African influence remains in the loping groove and in Archer’s guitar work. Jones remains on trumpet and the horn section combines well, with Harper on tenor and Smith on alto also making fluent solo statements.
Smith’s own “Face In The Crowd” places a greater focus on his own masterful clarinet playing and sees him working closely with the highly versatile guitarist Archer. It’s an atmospheric and evocative piece that fits well with the album’s ‘cinematic’ concept. Archer is also a featured soloist, adopting an Americana style twang at times and demonstrating his mastery of a wide variety of guitar styles.
Written by Archer, Smith and Harper “Ghosts” draws on Malian “desert blues” stylings and features the sound of Harper on flute. The impressive Archer is also prominent again, as is Ferg Ireland on bass. Smith emerges to solo on clarinet and Jones also makes a powerful contribution as the music gathers an impressive energy and momentum, driven forward by Cleasby at the kit.
Apparently the Smith / Webb composition “Cha U Kao” was inspired by Toulouse Lautrec, but there’s still a pronounced African influence about the lilting grooves. As at Cheltenham Jurd joins the group for this piece and features as a soloist, alongside Harper on tenor.
Harper’s own “Skyline” is introduced by Webb at the piano and features Ireland’s melodic bowing. This recorded incarnation is a lyrical piece that is rich in terms of colour and texture and which features some excellent ensemble playing, with Archer again playing a key role. Jones contributes an intelligent, gently probing trumpet solo and Cleasby a remarkable drum feature that finds him playing melodies on the toms.
Smith’s “Memory Palace” features the composer on bass clarinet and combines African influences with allusions to jazz styles of the past. The always impressive Webb enjoys his first extended solo thus far and this piece is very much a showcase for his playing.
Webb and Smith are the co-writers of “Foxes”, which commences in suitably nocturnal fashion with the sounds of just piano and softly whispering reeds, with Smith again on bass clarinet. The mood remains throughout the piece and evokes images of the said foxes stealthily stalking their prey in the darkened woods.
The album concludes with Smith’s “The Carpenter”, an elegiac piece with something of a Township Jazz feel about it, crossed with a sliver of Americana courtesy of Archer’s slide guitar. Jurd is the featured soloist and the whole piece is highly evocative, or even pictorial, reflecting the band’s growing fascination with cinema.
Building on the success of the earlier “Things Happened Here” this new recording represents Kansas Smitty’s most mature and varied offering to date. “We’re Not In Kansas Anymore” blends traditional jazz virtues with more contemporary influences and stirs a variety of ‘world music’ styles into the mix. With several different writers contributing to the compositional process the music is impressively varied in terms of style, colour, rhythm and texture and both the writing and the playing is excellent throughout.
The album is further enhanced by the quality of the production, by Smith and co-producer Jack Abraham who head a team that also includes engineers Lewis Durham and Graeme Durham. In recent years Smith has established a good reputation for his work as a producer and has recently produced albums for pianist /vocalist Jamie Cullum and drummer Jas Kayser.
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