New album by Wester Hailes sax man

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by Brian Morton

Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith has a new record out.  It’s called Karma.  Smith has previously released records called Torah, written for fellow tenorist Joe Lovano, and Evolution, the cover of which featured a giant Tommy, splashing water in a lochan, like Finn McCool, or more properly the Scottish giant Benandonner.

These titles give some measure of Smith’s ambition as well as his range of reference.  The new record doesn’t just deliver solid post-Coltrane jazz of a kind Smith has now been making confidently for nearly years, it also touches on Scots and Irish materials sometimes in harmony, sometimes in contention.  There is also Indian tala, Arabic modes and hints of Far Eastern ritual: he says Japanese, but I get a whiff of Korean court music in there as well.  He plays shakuhachi and a bit of synthesiser as well as tenor saxophone this time.  It’s a brave Westerner who even picks up shakuhachi, but Smith has been driven throughout his career by immense personal confidence and predictably he makes even that treacherous, fragile instrument his own.

With Karma, Smith has a discography that must now amount to two dozen records. He has recorded for Blue Note and the blue-chip ECM, probably still the two leading jazz marques of the day, as well as for Scottish-based Linn and now his own Spartacus imprint, what a wealth of psychodrama in that choice of name.

He began, famously, as a teenager in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, practising saxophone in his bedroom.  Equally famously, he was influenced by the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, whose plangent, cool, ‘Nordic’ tone is still possibly detectable in Smith’s work though one has to feel, listening to Karma or to any of the records he has made with big-name American players, that there is something more of the blues and r’n’b, or even acid-jazz, in Smith’s make up.

Smith’s family background became a matter of public knowledge and discussion – much of it bravely fronted by the saxophonist himself – when he learned the full story of his birth and parentage, and the identity of his real father.  It was a strangely moving episode, and in a musical style which tends anyway to veer between ‘hot’ personal inscape and ‘cooler’ abstraction it seemed to bring a new dimension to Smith’s playing.

The slightly flip complexity of his mid-period work, a term used ironically of a man who started recording at 16 or 17 and hailed as a prodigy, has given way to something darker and more resonant.  I used to say ruefully that Tommy Smith sometimes talked and played as if he had invented music.  It wasn’t meant unkindly, but the virtuosity sometimes got in the way of the music.

Recent  years have seen Smith’s art mature, extend in vocal (aural) length and take on a wholly individual character that means it’s impossible to walk into a room where ‘Cause and Effect’ or ‘Land of Heroes’ is playing and imagine it’s anyone else on the saxophone.  The new group is terrific, too, with drummer Alyn Cosker and pianist Steve Hamilton taking extra weight from Kevin Glasgow’s electric bass.

There are one or two misprints kicking round the product.  It isn’t ‘Body and Soul’ they’re playing, that old tenor saxophone warhorse that every sax man has to tackle once in a while, but a Smith original called ‘Body or Soul’, which is quite a different kind of Scottish beastie, the antisyszygy in a nutshell.  And the mixmaster responsible for whipping the original sound into shape is none other than Jan Erik Kongshaug (the first ‘g’ confirms his princely status) who gave the ECM label its distinctive character in the early days.

All these things, though, point to Smith’s sense of history.  He’s even put this record in a slipcase, like an ECM album.  His encounters with big labels perhaps weren’t the happiest and Blue Note did, as Blue Note does, dump him as soon as he made a brilliant record for them, the still-underrated Paris.

This time, he appears on the front in thoughtful monochrome, not contrived sepia.  He plays a blinder and fronts a real band.  ‘Star’ is, indeed, inspired by ‘Star of the County Down’.  ‘Body or Soul’ is very likely to end up in the standard repertory.  It’s jazz, in short, that confidently explores cause and effect and is substantial enough, heroic enough for a land of heroes.

Not sure what he’s doing in a Winnebago on the back cover, except he seems to be rubbing sweaty palms and looking up anxiously, as if a giant towers over him.  All the giants of the saxophone tower over him, but only because they’ve come to hear what this young Scotsman – still not yet 45 years old – is doing with their music.  Remarkable things, is the answer.

Brian Morton co-authored the Penguin Jazz Guide