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Embodying the Light
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Embodying the Light
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Dedication to John Coltrane
Dear Lord is the short track, the ballad, on John Coltrane's Transition album recorded in 1965. There was a little period in my life when Dear Lord took me over. Back in the '70s, living in a legal squat but with no proper heating, rock bands rehearsing in the room across the hall from mine, as well as above me, like steam rollers laying tarmac, John Coltrane seemed the embodiment of sanity. Dear Lord was the place I went to in order to hear myself as a tenor saxophone. Dear Lord is so beautiful, even now it feels like rain and sun have combined. When I looked at the track listings for Tommy Smith’s new album and saw Dear Lord I wondered how he could eclipse it. And of course, he doesn’t. Tommy Smith’s lovely take on Lord is even shorter than the original. He doesn’t attempt to do anything different, doesn’t fight it, doesn’t smother it with new notes, he just plays that exquisite melody with all the skill and grace he can bring to the proposition. There’s no point in saying anything different, this too is beautiful.
You better believe it. Tommy Smith. Sometimes it comes back to this; after all the orchestral suites, the interviews, all the collaborations with famous people, the commissions, the arrangements both practical and musical, a successful musician has to ‘return to sender’. Who sent you on this journey? It’s 50 years since John Coltrane died, time certainly for Tommy Smith to pull an A1 quartet out of his sharp suit pocket and record ‘A Dedication To John Coltrane’. As I have stated elsewhere in this month’s \'What’s New\', for a sax player it is nigh on impossible to get around the legacy that is John Coltrane. Don’t even try to; Embodying The Light is a much more truthful response. Simply, embrace the one who gave you motivation and enlightenment. But, hey, even so, only do this when you are absolutely sure that by doing so you have something to bring to the table.
Tommy Smith offers up both light and darkness, a man of his word (and sound). No one can take away from Mr Smith what he has achieved. As a sixteen year old kid way back in 1983 Smith recorded his first album Giant Strides (a nod to Coltrane’s Giant Steps). It was good too, people began talking. Back in the day, I can remember going to see Ornette Coleman (or was it Braxton?) playing on London’s South Bank and Tommy Smith opening the gig with a small group. There was a buzz around him though murmurings came in tow. There are always those who have put-your-own-people-down-responses to child prodigy. Well, Tommy Smith is still here and he’s proved his worth, done everything that anyone could ask of him. Now he chooses to ‘embody the light’, referencing his own original source for the journey. This album is such a delight. When I recently reviewed Mr Smith’s suite, Beauty And The Beast, which featured the American, Bill Evans as soloist, I mused on whether Smith should have taken on that central role himself. Listening to Embodying The Light, its starkly obvious that he could have done, what’s more (in my opinion), he should have done.
Let’s go first to Summertime, Gershwin’s money earner, recorded literally thousands and thousands of times by musicians of every genre imaginable. Coltrane did his bit for the Gershwin estate on the 1960 Atlantic album My Favourite Things. Despite the presence of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, this whole session owes a fair bit to Coltrane’s last sojourn with the Miles Davis band. To comprehend John Coltrane you have to take in Miles Davis going modal. During this whole period diatonic scales were the rails on which Trane drove. Tommy Smith plugs into a feverish Summertime because he’s making a point. He cracks the melody at a fast pace using similar measures to Coltrane. Summertime always adapts to circumstances, acting as one of the modal testers on Embodying The Light. Placed smack in-between The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost (from Coltrane’s Meditations, which contra to the passive title was the ‘out’ recording which finally imploded the ‘classic’ Coltrane quartet) and Embodying The Darkness, a Smith composition which acts as a Janus double to the title track. Where there is light, look long enough and you will find darkness.
This Summertime is no everyday ‘jazz’. It pulses. Plugs the gap. Stings like a wasp in dry heat. Whereas the trinity of Father, Son & Spirit is alchemical phat-thunder, a gnawing at the bone of a prayer to whoever’s there, Summertime crosses the ears easily, morphed into one classic shape. A piano solo spraying a confetti of notes, chords cupped in the hands each one a present of sorts, double bass peaking on the scale of the line, the drum solo as tight as a knot, and Tommy’s tenor telling the truth that there’s no point trying to keep up with him, he’s not taking the janitor’s dog for a walk. Once they get to Embodying The Darkness Tommy Smith’s saxophone is the sound in the dark. The flowing conversation of an adult who knows he’s gone for good. If all this sounds rather esoteric, it is only if you want it to be. You see, this music is the direction home.
Tommy Smith, Pete Johnstone, Calum Gourlay and Sebastiaan de Krom have produced a recording which is so easy to enjoy. His compatriots are chosen to spark. At this moment bassist Calum Gourlay is in more bands than you can shake a stick at, with good reason, he’s a deeply musical rhythmic inventor. Pete Johnstone, a first call pianist with a vein straight to McCoy Tyner, and the Belgium drummer, Sebastiaan de Krom, a percussionist who can collapse time as well as make it work damn hard.
Tommy Smith closes down his homage to Coltrane with Transition, the title track from my original vinyl Impulse record containing Dear Lord. Transition always was something else, one of those Trane visitations to the blues that transcends the description. And Tommy Smith hurls himself into the deep density of the soundquake as if he was born to play it. Maybe he was, maybe we all were, except that this guy actually can do it (for us). That’s how it feels. Watch the concert performance on YouTube, it’s all there. Any saxophonist who releases a specific album of John Coltrane material is not asking for an easy ride. I haven’t given him one either, it’s just that Mr Smith has achieved something fundamentally fabulous. I don’t have to justify it further and neither does he.
Embodying the Light
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Coltrane's passing there will no doubt be a spate of Trane tribute albums, but it is doubtful if there will many (if any) finer than this offering from Tommy Smith and his new Quartet. Smith has said that he has waited a long time before making an album dedicated to the undisputed heavyweight of the the tenor saxophone, but as with much of Tommy's output timing is everything and now as the saxophonist reaches fifty (he was born in April 1967 just a few months before Coltrane's death), the time seems absolutely spot on.
It has been 34 years since the teenage Smith had the audacity of youth to title his debut album Giant Strides, yet the tackling of 'Giant Steps/Titan Strides' gave a hint of not just a precocious and rapidly developing talent but perhaps an indication of things to come. Throughout his career the saxophonist has been beholden to no-one, processing influences and moving on and yet distilling all this study of past masters into his own inimitable and distinctive voice.
It is this individuality that goes along way to validate Smith's case in presenting a dedication to Trane, and from the opening bars of 'Transformation' (a Smith original) it is obvious who the dedicatee is, and equally unmistakable as to who is playing the tenor saxophone. From the outset Smith's playing is recorded totally
assured, blistering through the changes with a controlled vigour that drags all along in it's wake The superlative rhythm section are with him all the way, with bassist, Calum Gourey anchoring things down, and pianist Pete Johnstone filling in the harmony with big chunky chords that keep the saxophonist buoyant.
The ballad numbers are taken care of with 'Dear Lord' and 'Naima', superbly played and Tommy playing in the style and sound that many follows will readily associate with him, however it is the up tempo pieces that elicit the most euphoria, and reveal the exploratory nature of Smith's , and the quartet\'s playing. One has
to go back as far as 2005 to the Forbidden Fruit album and prior to that The Christmas Concert recorded in 2001 to hear Tommy playing in such an unfettered manner. Never a free player, Smith revels in the time honoured tradition of playing over a chord sequence, but on the evidence here is perfectly able and willing to
kick up a storm, with the notes tumbling out of the bell of his saxophone in some of his most declamatory playing. Always in total control of the solo\'s destiny, Smith peppers his tone with split notes and the use of overtones to add weight to his statements.
As if proof be needed, just take a listen to 'Resolution' with the saxophonist taking his solo after a blinder from Pete Johnstone, that is full of passion and fire. He follows that with a Quartet rendition, sans solos, of 'The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost' that is truly electrifying, and ups the ante still further; a truly
remarkable performance. From here on in to the end of the album, things are allowed to settle, despite a rumbustious reading of Gershwin's 'Summertime', and the concluding 'Transition', a piece that Coltrane recorded in 1965 with his Classic Quartet that Smith and his colleagues keep suitably grounded.
And it is this tie with the Classic Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones that Smith and his cohorts most readily identify, not slavishly copying but absorbing the spirit of this great music, and presenting heir musical dedication with grace, passion and conviction, and also (hopefully) indicating that this is just the first chapter for this fine group.
Reviewed by Nick Lea
Tommy Smith:Embodying the Light
Subtitled "A Dedication to John Coltrane", this album sees the renowned Scots tenor saxophonist salute the jazz giant who first inspired him, marking the 50th anniversaries of his own birth and Coltane's death.
From the first notes of the opener, Smith's own Transformation, his sax establishes a magisterial tone and a dynamic entirely appropriate. The rest of his new quartet - pianist Pete Johnstone, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Sebastian de Krom - match him for drive and responsiveness. Smith's title track bounces along, and among Coltrane classics there's sublime drift to Dear Lord and Naima, while the quartet make Resolution from A Love Supreme electrifyingly their own with sax and piano ranging fiercely. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, meanwhile, is an ensemble triumph. Far removed from the slavish recreation, the elegant homage is an outstanding achievement in its own right.
Jim Gilchrist - The Scotsman
TSQ - Dedication to John Coltrane
I'd become so used to thinking of Tommy Smith and the SNJO as being joined at the hip, and I use the word advisedly, that I'd almost forgotten what a formidable player he was in a small group setting. This tribute to John Coltrane puts the record straight.
He is to Scottish Jazz what Robbie Burns was to Scottish Poetry. With Smith, the best laid schemes of mice and jazzmen don't gang aft agley. In fact, on this disc, they don't gang agley at all. Over the 50 years since 'Trane ascended he's had many disciples but few, if any, have absorbed the complete canon as well as Scotland's own Trane. From the barnstorming Prestige/Blue Note period to the spiritual searching of the Atlantic/Impulse years Smith has it nailed. Not in a cloning manner but in a very personal way.
The opener, Transformation, a Smith original, sets the stall out with a Giant Steps-like blast that lasts forever and yet still didn't seem long enough! Coltrane's Dear Lord is shorter. A hymn that, in the eye of an unbeliever, would be classed as a ballad. Believer or infidel, it's still 3 minutes of beauty. Embodying the Light, another Smith original, has a familiar sequence that features Gourlay and Johnstone before Smith's grand entrance. He's like a bull in a china shop with the difference being that the porcelain remains unbroken, maybe enhanced!
Naima, one of Trane's 'signature dishes' is given 'signature' treatment by Smith. Amazingly Tommy was born on the day that 'Trane died and this was recorded 50 years later on the very same day. Who says there aren't mystical forces that guide our destiny?
Resolution's full of eastern promise. Johnstone resists the call to board the next flight to Mumbai and instead, heads off to JFK where, upon landing, takes a cab down to the Village Vanguard. Smith joins him - they take the scenic route.The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost from the 1966 Meditations album wasn't intended to be a disco hit and it wasn't. Not even at the church social.
However, in Jazz Heaven, I'm sure both JC's have given TS their blessing - it's quite incredible.
Summertime - when in doubt, play Summertime; just don't sing it. Tommy doesn't sing it but he does swing it as do his clansmen.
Embodying the Darkness, Smith's sequel to the title track touches on 'Trane's Sheets of Sound or, as one unbeliever used to say to me, Sounds of Sheet. de Krom shines a light on the darkness that avoids you stepping in the...Transition another tour de force from Smith, more power piano from Johnstone (also a member of award winning band Square One who impressed listeners at both the Ushaw Festival and at a JNE gig at the Bridge Hotel last year) rounds off a truly great album.
I deliberately didn't listen to the Coltrane versions, Naima was the only one I knew, I didn't want any preconceived ideas and, whatever, this album stands on its own 8 feet.
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