Twenty-six year old saxophonist Mike Smith clearly has performing in the blood. But when I interviewed him about his new CD “Ginger Tunes,” the first in his own name, what kept coming through was the attitude: “being bold, scouse and cheeky.” He tells me it’s something he’s known for.
Mike Smith grew up in Southport in Merseyside, and first signed up for lessons on the saxophone- in order to avoid maths classes- at the age of 12. He participated in the school’s big band, the Sefton Youth Jazz Orchestra, which he remembers with great fondness. But his musical development was also progressing outside school. Smith’s mother was the guitarist in gigging band called Switchback. The band played covers of Beatles and AC/DC songs, and so, before long, Smith the teenager was featuring on gigs, starting by taking a sax solo on Lady Madonna, and developing from there, gradually building the respect of the others onstage. For this youngster, music was not so much a rebellion as catching the family bug.
He went on to the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts (LIPA). LIPA was co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney, is based in the building where the Beatle went to school. It is known for attracting able and keen students from a wide range of backgrounds. “It opens arms to the local community, it widens participation, and has proved an excellent springboard into the creative professions,” says Ben Turner, education correspondent at the Liverpool Echo. It was at the Institute that Smith formed many of his close working relationships. Smith wanted to reflect his day-to-day work with these collaborators- notably bassist and producer JJ Rio, and drummer Jay Irving on the CD. Smith graduated from LIPA with first-class honours in 2005. He still keeps an association with the college- he now goes back there to teach.
Another important development in Smith’s journey was performing and touring extensively with the Muffin Men, a Liverpool-based band formed in 1990 which mainly performs the music of Frank Zappa. It was through the Muffin Men that Smith met and got to know Zappa’s drummer Jimmy Carl Black, a regular guest with the band. Smith was 19. “I’d never met any one like him before, and I doubt I ever will. He was a rock star in the proper sense. He spent his whole life on the road, but had a real thing about Liverpool.” Smith got to know him well, stayed at his home, appreciated his jokes and sayings, every one of them totally unprintable. Black died in 2008.
Smith has a full, strong saxophone sound on both soprano and tenor. Grover Washington an influence, I asked him? No, Smith’s sax hero is definitely Joshua Redman , whom he heard live at the Village Vanguard in New York.
In addition to the Muffin Men, Smith has worked with Stevie Winwood, Craig David, and is currently a regular- on keyboards- with Kid Creole. Smith put together the CD “Ginger Tunes” to be “an honest account of where I am,” and the album’s inspirations have indeed come from many places. There are some clues in the CD booklet, which contains no fewer than fifty photos. There’s one of Smith on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, another looking up at the canopy outside the Village Vanguard. But there’s also a wooden toilet seat (I didn’t ask) and a portrait of the artist in front of some waste containers.
This eclectic approach colours the album. One track has the glorious fresh sound of the voices of African children. They were recorded on a trip to Malawi with the educational organization Beat Life. Another, Faith in Him, is a feature for gutsy Wakefield-born soul singer Hannah Rei. Liquid is a dialogue for Smith with himself on overdubbed tenor and soprano saxes. And on the final track, Ascendency (sic), TV presenter and Liverpool football pundit Keith Wilson, is featured declaiming a poem. It’s straight out of the sixties Liverpool beat poet tradition of Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. This is a cheerful album, full of variety.