by Ian Mann
June 02, 2011
"Karma" is an impressive album with some imaginative writing and arranging and some great playing, it's certainly not a routine fusion date.
(Spartacus Records STS015)
The Edinburgh born saxophonist Tommy Smith exploded onto the UK scene in the 1980’s at the time of the “British Jazz Boom” that launched the careers of Courtney Pine, Andy Sheppard and many of the then young musicians who came to prominence as members either of the Jazz Warriors or Loose Tubes. Smith was a teenage prodigy and studied at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston where he was spotted by the likes of Gary Burton and Chick Corea, better judges of Smith’s potential than some of the critics of the time who dismissed the hype surrounding Smith and reckoned his career would soon fizzle out.
Fast forward to 2011 and Smith has matured into the godfather of Scottish jazz, helping to kick-start a vibrant Scottish scene, heading his own Spartacus record label and most significantly of all founding and still running the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, a hothouse for young Scottish jazz talent. Smith’s educational work has been matched by a wide ranging solo career that has touched many bases from solo saxophone improvisations to collaborations with poets to large ensemble projects in addition to his more regular small group work. He has continued to work with Burton and has also been involved in influential collaborations with vibraphonist Joe Locke and more recently with Norwegian bassist and composer Arild Andersen.
I’ve been an admirer of Smith’s work for a long time and first saw him play with his Forward Motion quartet at Brecon Jazz Festival in the late 1980’s. I also recall a sextet performance in Birmingham in the early 90’s with the band that made “Paris”, one of the best of his early recordings. Many years later I saw him at Cheltenham Jazz Festival looking resplendent in his kilt for a turbo charged performance by Locke’s “Four Walls Of Freedom” band. Later still came an appearance with Andersen’s trio in Lichfield on a UK tour to promote their ECM album “Live At Belleville” and only last year I saw him reunited with Burton when the vibraphonist appeared as guest soloist with the SNJO at the 2010 London Jazz Festival.
Smith’s latest project “Karma” represents something of a departure for him as he explores various folk music forms and also works with electric instruments for the first time in many years. Smith calls the Karma group his “grunge band” and the all Scottish line up includes Steve Hamilton on piano and synthesiser, powerhouse drummer Alyn Cosker and, perhaps most significantly, Kevin Glasgow on six string electric bass. It’s the first time Smith has worked with an electric bassist and Glasgow, along with Hamilton’s electric keyboards, makes a big difference to the group sound. On a cursory level “Karma” may sound like just another fusion album, a kind of 70’s/80’s update, but closer inspection reveals that there’s far more going on than that. There’s still plenty of invention, imagination and colour in Smith’s writing and a semi conceptual theme that links the whole album. Although not formally a religious man Smith has become fascinated by aspects of faith, religion and spirituality, exploring these themes on the SNJO albums “World of the Gods” and “Torah” which examined Shintoism and Judaism respectively. “Karma” thus has a vaguely Buddhist theme- and although it’s not something that’s hammered home the karmic principle neatly mirrors Smith’s desire to give something back to the Scottish jazz scene and to the country as a whole, a kind of payback for the help, financial and otherwise, that he received from his local community in his formative years.
Smith has always included elements of Scottish folk music in his work but his tenure with Andersen has encouraged him to explore other folk and world music forms, thus creating a second theme that permeates this new work. The folk elements are merged with a more forceful approach that has its roots in American fusion (Weather Report and guitarist Wayne Krantz are acknowledged as major influences) and in even in Smith’s love for heavy metal (Smith cites Metallica here). By now it’s clear that “Karma” has plenty of stuff going on, it’s certainly not a routine fusion date.
The pieces on the album appear in the order in which they were written. Things kick off in a blaze of energy with “Cause And Effect” which has the strutting confidence of the best fusion as the group negotiate the various time signature changes with ease. Smith storms through the piece with remarkable fluency, his tone exhibiting a vaguely Middle Eastern influence. There’s a sparkling acoustic piano solo from Hamilton, high octane hammering from Cosker and some remarkably slippery bass lines from Glasgow on his distinctive six string electric bass. It’s an exhilarating start that leaves the listener breathless.
“Land of Heroes” (a reference to Scotland itself, one suspects) offers a complete change of mood and pace. Smith’s lovely tune recalls Jan Garbarek’s folkloric melodies. The influence of the Norwegian saxophonist has been discernible in Smith’s playing throughout his career and Smith sounds uncannily like his role model here. Hamilton and Glasgow make supremely lyrical contributions and Cosker proves that he can be sympathetic as well as fiery.
“Good Deed” pays homage to the music of Weather Report with its bubbling Jaco Pastorius style bass line and mercurial sax and synth passages. Glasgow is one of the most musical electric bassists I’ve heard, combining the swagger of Pastorius with the intelligence and subtlety of Steve Swallow.
In his hands the bass often acquires a guitar like quality (more on that later), a trait also associated with Swallow. A word too for Cosker’s dynamic drumming throughout this piece.
“Body Or Soul” is Smith’s updating of one of his old tunes, a piece originally entitled “The Celtic Warrior”. It begins in something of a Celtic mist with Hamilton’s acoustic piano and synthesised backwash before mutating into something much more forceful with Cosker’s drums featuring prominently. There’s a thrilling duel between Smith on tenor and Hamilton on synth as Smith and his colleagues take a simple folk melody and turn it into a high energy fusion workout.
The folk influence continues into “Tomorrow”, this time an adaptation of the Yemeni folk song “Ilama Ilama” that makes Smith sound like John Coltrane filtered through Gilad Atzmon. Steve Hamilton, also a talented kit drummer, provides additional percussion, his hand drumming, executed on a tambourine and really helping to drive the piece.
The title track is a slice of Headhunters style funk with a percolating synthesised bass line, vocalised sax inflections and volcanic polyrhythmic drumming. It’s a joyous, unpretentious slab of unashamedly flashy old school fusioneering.
“Star” is based on the melody of the ubiquitous Irish folk standard “The Star Of The County Down”. Glasgow’s chordal solo bass introduction is stunning, sounding more like guitar than bass and imbued with a real sense of spaciousness and genuine emotion. Smith treats the song as a ballad or lament playing with great tenderness and Hamilton’s piano is correspondingly lyrical. Most folk acts race through the song and treat it as a raucous audience participation number, with this delicately slowed down reinterpretation Smith and his colleagues restore something of the sense of yearning expressed in the original lyrics. Smith also performs a version of this piece as part of the Arild Andersen trio.
“Projection” is another piece based on Yemeni folk song forms but this time Smith places the tune in a more contemporary setting with a broadly fusion sound courtesy of Hamilton’s synthesised backdrop. This provides the backdrop for an impassioned solo by Smith and a dazzlingly dexterous outing for Glasgow.
Smith’s world tour continues on “Sun” which finds him playing the Japanese bamboo flute the shakuhachi, an instrument that he also sometimes plays with Arild Andersen’s trio-it’s also a nice link to the “World of the Gods” album. Smith begins the piece on shakuhachi but the zen like calm of the intro is a contrast to the hard driving nature of much of the rest of the piece which places the Japanese inspired melody firmly in a Western context. Hamilton helps give the piece tremendous rhythmic drive which in turn acts as the spur for Smith’s impassioned, technically dazzling improvising. Hamilton’s own solo restores a degree of lyricism and Glasgow’s guitar like bass lines also catch the ear.
The closing “Who Are You?” is probably the closest the album gets to orthodox jazz with expansive solos from Smith and Hamilton but Cosker and Glasgow still ensure that the piece has that fusion
feel and rhythm.
“Karma” is an impressive album with some imaginative writing and arranging and some great playing, all the livelier pieces have the players confidently strutting their stuff and displaying their formidable chops. This only to be expected from Smith, the experienced and adaptable Hamilton and the ebullient Cosker but Glasgow represents a thrilling new discovery- a star is born, expect to hear a lot more from him. At times I’m reminded just a little too much of 70’s and 80’s fusion styles but in the main the sheer brio of the playing plus the quality and variety of the writing help Smith and his colleagues to retain their credibility. “Land of Heroes” and “Star” represent moments of real beauty and the world music sounds of “Tomorrow” and “Sun” add a welcome touch of variety and colour.
The Karma group must be a thrilling live band, it’s something of a disappointment to note that they don’t appear to be part of the UK festival circuit this summer. Let’s hope that they conduct a national tour at some point in the future.
Since the above was written the following 2011 tour dates have been announced;
24 JUNE: ABERDEEN - Blue Lamp
25 JUNE: SHETLAND - Islesburgh Centre
29 JUNE: GLASGOW - Stereo, Glasgow Jazz Festival
26 JULY: EDINBURGH - Bosco Tent, George Square, Edinburgh Jazz Festival
10 AUGUST: LONDON - Ronnie Scott’s * Brit-Jazz Fest 2011
29 SEPTEMBER: BASINGSTOKE - The Forge at the Anvil
30 SEPTEMBER: CAMBRIDGE - Modern Jazz Club Hidden Rooms
02 OCTOBER: WELWYN GARDEN CITY - Herts Jazz Club
04 OCTOBER: MANCHESTER - Band On The Wall
05 OCTOBER: HULL - The Goodfellowship Inn
06 OCTOBER: WARWICK - Arts Centre
07 OCTOBER: WAKEFIELD - Wakefield Sports Club
08 OCTOBER: LIVERPOOL - Capstone Theatre
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