Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Tom Richards Orchestra

Smoke and Mirrors


by Ian Mann

September 13, 2008


Large Scale Writing Of Depth And Quality. A Remarkably Mature Debut

“Smoke And Mirrors” was released in May to unanimous critical acclaim. Rightly so, it is a remarkably mature début. Band leader/composer/saxophonist Tom Richards is only 26 and for him to produce a large scale work of such depth and quality especially in these financially straitened times is little short of astonishing.

Richards has assembled a phenomenal array of talented young musicians, many of them leading figures on the London jazz scene. Among them are rising piano star Gwilym Simcock, and Loop Collective members Jim Hart (vibes) and Ivo Neame (here on alto sax).

Richards is a member of Jamie Cullum’s band and has even coaxed the singer into participating on the record. Indeed the title track is co-written by Richards and Cullum and features the latter on vocals. The remaining five instrumental pieces are Richards originals.

The album begins with “Dropping Pennies” which builds from quiet beginnings to full orchestral magnificence under the baton of conductor Jules Buckley. Buckley performed the same role in Gwilym Simcock’s big band a couple of years back. The piece is continually unfolding and is full of delightful details and changes in dynamics. A highlight is the sparkling dialogue between Hart and Simcock, reminiscent of their work with Stan Sulzmann in Neon. The horn voicings are superb throughout and the splendidly flexible rhythm section of drummer John Blease and bassist Richard Pryce pushes the music along in all the right places.

“Smoke And Mirrors” itself is a superior quality extended pop song given a superb jazz influenced arrangement. I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never been a big fan of Jamie Cullum but his soulful, smoky vocal is right on the money here. At times his voice is electronically embellished by Matt Calvert adding greatly to the mysterious atmosphere. Calvert also provides the soaring rock influenced guitar solo in the middle of the song.

“Liquor Bickering” is another fine piece of large ensemble writing with solo honours going to Gareth Lockrane’s effervescent flute. There is also a rousing and agile trombone passage but it isn’t clear from the album notes which player in the section should take the plaudits. The piece concludes with an unexpected but delightful Latin influenced coda.

The two part “They Came From The Stars, I Saw Them” is typically cinematic in scope. Part one begins reflectively and features both Hart and Simcock plus the delightfully detailed drumming of Blease offset against a beautiful horn arrangement. There is a ruminative saxophone passage with minimal accompaniment (Richards himself at a guess) before the whole band comes in.

Blease’s drums abruptly take us into part two. This is closer to standard big band swing than anything which has gone before with quality sax and trumpet solos that will remain uncredited for lack of information.

“That’s That Then” grows out of Simcock’s piano intro. The pianist features prominently throughout the track but there is also more of the imaginative and colourful ensemble writing that graces the album as a whole. The mood varies from the resigned and wistful as suggested by the title to the ecstatic as embodied by Simcock’s rapturous solo.

Simcock also opens the closing track “The GC”. The subsequent orchestral fanfares and celebratory mood at times recall the great Loose Tubes ensembles of the 80’s. There are more excellent horn solos that alas must also remain uncredited.

“Smoke And Mirrors” is a towering achievement. Richards has composed a memorable set of highly melodic tunes and arranged them brilliantly. There is a real breadth of colour to this music which is constantly shifting in terms of mood and pace to give a cinematic, kaleidoscopic quality.
Each piece is like a musical journey and besides the rich ensemble passages there is also some great soloing.

Richards cites Maria Schneider as a key influence in his large scale composing plus the “three Mikes”-Gibbs,Garrick and Westbrook ,and of course Gil Evans. Some critics have mentioned the late Neil Ardley too. “Smoke And Mirrors” more than holds it’s own in comparison with such illustrious company and fans of any of these artists should love it.

However “Smoke And Mirrors” should appeal to all jazz followers, not just big band fans. There is a broad enough scope here to provide something for everybody and of course the presence of Cullum is a big help from the commercial point of view.

Logistically it would be almost impossible to tour with this band which is a shame as I’m sure they’d be just phenomenal live. They have played one major London gig and Richards also runs a cut down version of the band.

In the meantime check out this remarkable album.

blog comments powered by Disqus