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Tommy Smith

Embodying the Light


by Ian Mann

September 25, 2017


An extremely exciting recording with all of the musicians playing with great energy, drive and an extraordinarily high level of skill.

Tommy Smith

“Embodying the Light”

(Spartacus Records STS025)

2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the American saxophonist, composer and improviser John Coltrane, has seen contemporary jazz musicians queueing up to pay homage to one of the most influential of all jazz musicians.

Among the British based musicians to release tributes to Coltrane in 2017 have been saxophonist Denys Baptiste with “The Late Trane” (Edition Records) and the Israeli born multi-instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon with his “The Spirit of Trane” on his own Fanfare Jazz imprint.

Baptiste’s interpretations of Coltrane’s later, ‘spiritual jazz’ material included a subtle degree of contemporary electronic embellishment. Meanwhile Atzmon, playing in the company of his regular working group the Orient House Ensemble, chose to take a broader chronistic view of Coltrane’s music, but augmented some of the performances with string arrangements played by the Sigamos String Quartet led by violinist and arranger Ros Stephen.

If Baptiste’s use of electronics and Atzmon’s addition of strings represented their attempts to impose their own stamp on Coltrane’s legacy then Smith adopts a rather different route by including a greater proportion of original material, albeit compositions written very much in the style of Coltrane.
Yet in other ways Smith’s album is the closest stylistically to the man Smith refers to as “The Master”. “Embodying The Spirit” features a generation spanning acoustic quartet including the experienced drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, the dependable and now well established bassist Calum Gourlay and one of the rising stars of the Scottish jazz scene, pianist Pete Johnstone. Smith himself specialises on tenor sax throughout, resisting the temptation to double on soprano as Coltrane himself often did.

Born in Edinburgh in 1967 Smith was something of a child prodigy and went on to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. A stint with the quartet led by his former tutor, the vibraphonist Gary Burto,n helped to bring him to international attention and in the late 80’s / early 90s Smith was signed to the Blue Note record label where he recorded a series of albums featuring such well known American musicians as guitarist John Scofield and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

He has continued to work with major American and European musicians including the American vibraphonist Joe Locke and the Norwegian bassist and composer Arild Andersen, with whom he has enjoyed a particularly fruitful musical relationship.

Since returning to his native Scotland in 1991 Smith has been a great jazz ambassador for his homeland and has been heavily involved in jazz education. He founded the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in 1995 and the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2002 and was responsible for establishing Scotland’s first full time jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire at Scotland.

Smith has continued to perform internationally and record prolifically and established his own Spartacus record label in 2000. He has collaborated with classical performers as well as jazz players and has recorded in both small group and large ensemble formats, including several albums with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

It’s been a long and distinguished career and one that is too extensive to go into in forensic detail here. It’s a journey that has seen him make the journey from “promising youngster” and “rising star” to comparative “elder statesman”. He has become one of the most respected figures on the entire British jazz scene.

I first heard Smith’s playing as part of the UK “jazz boom” of the late 80s / early 90s when he routinely was bracketed with Loose Tubes, Jazz Warriors, Courtney Pine, Andy Sheppard et al. Ironically it was the fact that Smith (and also Sheppard) DIDN’T sound like John Coltrane that initially attracted me to his playing. I first heard him as part of the group Forward Motion which he co-led with the Norwegian bassist Terje Gewelt and which had a distinctly European sensibility. In those days, when most young British saxophonists, including Pine and Steve Williamson, were rather too obviously in thrall to Coltrane Smith sounded more like Jan Garbarek, ironically a musician who had been directly inspired by Coltrane but who had since moved on to develop his own very individual musical voice.

“I’ve waited a long time to record my dedication to Trane” observes Smith while reflecting on the “eternal inspiration” of “The Master”. Smith was born in the year of Coltrane’s death and on hearing this album it’s tempting to think of the flame as somehow being passed on fifty years ago from New York to Edinburgh.

“Embodying The Light” commences with the eleven minute “Transformation”, a Smith original written in the style of “Love Supreme” era Coltrane which opens with a solo sax cadenza to which piano, bass and the shimmer of de Krom’s cymbals is soon added. Following the introductory fanfares Smith embarks on a marathon solo that not only demonstrates his incredible technique and fluency but also captures something of Coltrane’s questing spirit. He enjoys terrific rhythmic support from a band that in Gourlay and Johnstone includes two of his former students. Smith’s role in the establishment of a healthy and burgeoning Scottish jazz scene should never be underrated, a fact emphasised by a dazzling Tyner-esque piano from the twenty seven year old Johnstone, the ‘baby’ of the group. I remember being very impressed by Johnstone when seeing him lead his own trio in a performance at the EFG London Jazz Festival in 2013.

Coltrane’s own “Dear Lord” features a gentler side of the quartet’s playing in all too brief ballad performance with Smith adopting a softer, but still authoritative tone on tenor, as the rest of the group offer sympathetic support with de Krom alternating between brushes and sticks.

Smith’s title track effects a more conventional swing feel, reminiscent perhaps of “Blue Train” era JC. Bassist Gourlay takes the first solo, his playing highly melodic, but still swinging and deeply resonant. He’s succeeded by Johnstone, who can be detected singing along ‘Jarrett style’ with his engagingly expansive solo. On a piece ten and a half minutes in length the musicians are accorded plenty of room in which to stretch out and if Johnstone grabs his opportunity with both hands then so does the leader with a lithe, but muscular solo that sees him digging in deeply.

Coltrane’s classic ballad “Naima”, a beautiful dedication to its composer’s first wife, is given an intriguing interpretation by the quartet with Smith in imperious form on tenor, calm and stately at first, before becoming increasingly impassioned. Essentially the piece is a vehicle for Smith’s brilliant soloing but his band provide superb support, responding to their leader’s every move with acumen and conviction.

Gourlay’s unaccompanied double bass introduces “Resolution”, arguably the best known and most covered track from “A Love Supreme”. Johnstone leads off the solos with a rollicking, dazzling excursion on piano. He’s certain to be an exciting new discovery for many listeners to this album, I’m sure. Smith eventually takes over on tenor, his playing increasingly garrulous as the rhythm team brew up a storm behind him.

Coltrane’s “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” represents a further statement of its composers spirituality with the sound Smith’s tenor evoking human cries over the rolling vamp provided by Johnstone, Gourlay and de Krom.
If this represents the Smith quartet’s deepest excursion into Coltrane’s “spiritual jazz” the next piece comes as something of a surprise as the group reach into the standards repertoire for a performance of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, a tune recorded by Coltrane in 1961 for the “My Favourite Things” album. It’s tackled in ‘Coltrane-esque’ style with Smith’s probing tenor to the fore, subtly bending Gershwin’s melody out of shape. Johnstone impresses with another audacious solo and the excellent de Krom enjoys something of a drum feature as he channels his inner Elvin Jones.

Smith’s “Embodying the Darkness” represents a counterpart to the title track and is another example of Smith’s ability to write in a Coltrane-esque style. The leader solos on tenor in blistering fashion above a seething rhythm track with de Krom, still in his Elvin Jones guise, a roiling ball of energy behind the kit.

The album concludes with Coltrane’s “Transition” the title track of the album recorded by the composer in 1965 but released posthumously in 1970. The quartet give a typically energetic and intense performance with two powerful excursions from Smith and a bravura piano solo from the brilliant Johnstone as de Krom and Gourlay continue to stoke the rhythmic fires. 

I’m always a little wary of these type of ‘tribute projects’ - jazz increasingly seems to be too much in thrall to its own past and is in danger of becoming a ‘heritage music’. Nevertheless there’s no denying the fact that this is an extremely exciting recording with all of the musicians playing with great energy, drive and an extraordinarily high level of skill. Smith is peerless throughout, the rhythm section consistently propulsive, but never obstructive, and Johnstone excels throughout. I’d expect nothing less than excellence from Smith but for me Johnstone almost steals the show. His appearance on this album should represent a considerable boost to his own solo career.

A very good album then, as are those by Baptiste and Atzmon, and a valuable reminder that Coltrane’s music remains alive, exciting and still relevant fifty years after his death. And if you’re taking a Coltrane tribute show out on the road – Atzmon and the OHE were excellent at the recent Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny – then I guess you need an album to back it up.

But, for me, that nagging doubt remains – as good as these new recordings are wouldn’t it be better just to go back and listen to the originals, to the man Smith calls “The Master”.


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