The busiest man in Scottish jazz grabs the solo part on his big band album.
Tommy Smith will be 43 in 10 days time, which doesn’t seem feasible. Somehow he has never lost the aura of being a super-talented much younger man. What he translates as, however, is a dynamic presence in Scottish music for over a quarter of a century. Now an essential pillar of the cultural infrastructure of the nation, the saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator has fought for every inch of that status, and insisted on his own terms every step of the way. The term “role-model” is much over-deployed these days, but Smith has been that to a couple of generations of jazz musicians.
At 16 he blazed a trail to Berklee College of Music in Boston, after winning a scholarship and being helped with his expenses there by fundraising concerts staged by older jazzers blown away by his precocious talent. Smith, in turn, has been the driving force behind the creation of a jazz education infrastructure in his homeland. This year saw the first intake at his jazz course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama after years of committed campaigning to give his music conservatoire status.
Alongside his persistent lobbying, Smith founded the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and built it into an outfit of international standing that works with the best musicians and finest arrangers in the world. The Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra, meantime, is packed with players of astonishing youth, who prove their leader is not entirely a one-off. During this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, the SNJO will play a concert in the Usher Hall, partly under the direction of Gunther Schuller, playing the Gil Evans arrangements of Porgy And Bess, which Schuller recorded with Miles Davis. It is yet another highly significant step that could not have come about without the energy of Smith, who has also recently become a father.
Superman is grabbing a sandwich and a coffee during a curtailed lunch break at the RSAMD as he fills me in on the upcoming agenda for the SNJO. He’s in bandleader mode and the ostensible reason for the interview is the imminent release of Torah, the suite he wrote for American saxophonist Joe Lovano to play with the SNJO back in 1999. It has now been recorded with Smith himself as soloist, and comes out on his own Spartacus Records label on April 26, but it would be an inaccurate reflection of the way things really are to limit conversation to that. The band is in the final stages of rehearsal of Smith’s newest music, The World Of The Gods, written for the combined forces of the orchestra and the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers – but by the time you read this, its debut tour will be a week in the past. Don’t worry if you missed it: the astute Mr Smith has created an accessible suite which also trades on the visual appeal of the drummers and it is likely to be gracing a festival near you before very long.
They may have been written a decade apart but both Torah and The World Of The Gods speak of Smith’s questing spirit. The new suite has 10 pieces named after Shinto gods such as Ryujin, god of the sea, and Hachiman, god of war. While sometimes clearly based on an oriental musical scale, the score includes jazz directions like “in a jungle groove”, with, of course, large sections of fluidity for soloing by the SNJO’s superb musicians. When I ask Smith how long the suite is, I instantly regret the question. “I don’t know,” he smiles, “It’s jazz.”
Such mechanics aside, the thematic link between the two works is curious. Torah is based on the five books of the “Jewish Bible”: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. As the booklet notes by jazz critic at The Herald Rob Adams make clear, the work is linked to the narrative in the religious text – and nowhere more so than in Smith’s own propulsive soloing. It is the musical equivalent of a “page-turner”. The composer is not on any personal spiritual journey that he is prepared to divulge. Rather he is sharing some elements of his own background and his general thirst for knowledge.
“When I was younger, my family went through various religions,” he says. “When I was 10 I could name all 60 books of the Bible in order and I had to read aloud at Bible study. I rebelled at the age of 18, there was just so much doctrine. I want to get away from all that. There are so many different interpretations of the Bible from the very first page.”
What is clear is that Smith believes jazz is more than capable of dealing with the big questions. “I don’t believe in God, but I don’t rule Him out,” he says. “I’m an evolutionist, but I have an open mind.”
He points me towards one of his works with poet Edwin Morgan, Planet Wave – nothing less than a history of the universe from the Big Bang to now – as another example of the Smith back catalogue which illustrates his broad interest. “I have a spiritual curiosity about everything. People need faith and society needs faith. The scholars in Constantine’s time did a good job with the Bible, but it has caused a lot of harm too.”
The coincidence of the Shinto Gods and the Jewish Torah in the SNJO’s programme is really just that. Torah was played by Joe Lovano in 2000 and Smith did not perform it as a soloist until 2006, when he enjoyed the experience. When he was looking for a piece to record in the studio with the SNJO to follow up the acclaimed recording of his reworking of Rhapsody In Blue, it naturally suggested itself. The discipline of working in the studio is at the top of his agenda at present, partly based on his experience of recording his youth jazz orchestra. “It really makes them think about shaping solos. When they hear themselves then go back in to do it again, the standard immediately goes up.”
The SNJO has a backlog of live recordings yet to see the light of day, but Smith’s new goal is to ensure the orchestra makes a studio recording each year. “The next one might be the Coltrane project, or music we did with Keith Tippett.”
As for Torah, it will have a live outing at the end of June during the Glasgow Jazz Festival in a programme that will also include Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder; but when the original dedicatee of the piece, Joe Lovano, teams up with the SNJO for that Usher Hall concert, Smith’s composition is not on the bill. Lovano’s own tributes to Charlie Parker (Bird’s Eye View) and Miles Davis (Cool) will feature alongside the music of Ellington and Horace Silver as well as the Gil Evans arrangements of Porgy And Bess. The evening will embrace the whole history of jazz, and it is already one of the hottest tickets in this year’s EIF programme.
It will also be an opportunity for the saxophonist to renew his acquaintance with veteran conductor Schuller, under whose baton he performed Scottish composer William Sweeney’s saxophone concerto some years ago in Reykjavik. But that really is a whole other story in the life of renaissance man Smith.