FEATURE: Tommy Smith and Modern Jacobite (Recording with the BBC Scottish SO, for release on August 26th)

Tommy Smith at the recording sessions for Modern Jacobite
Photo credit: Derek Clark

Tommy Smith’s new recording of “Modern Jacobite,” with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, will be released on August 26th. The CD also has Tommy Smith’s orchestration / adaptation of Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise,” and a work with extended improvised sections based on Chick Corea’s “Children’s Songs”.

In this feature written by Michael Clark(*), Smith has summarized the development of his work in classical contexts, a story nearly of three decades of work. Smith talks about the composers and ensembles (and castles and golf-courses) that have shaped this strand of his musical activity, and which have led to the new, large-scale and personally highly significant work:

The origins of Tommy Smith’s new symphonic recording, Modern Jacobite began in 1988, when he was asked to perform William Sweeney’s saxophone concerto An rathad ùr with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for his television series Jazz Types.

During the filming Smith was approached by Roger Pollen, the manager of the Scottish Ensemble, a 12-piece string group, who wished to commission a 20-minute saxophone concerto. He told Roger right away that he didn’t know how to tune a violin never-mind compose for a string ensemble! Roger suggested that if that was the case, then he should spend six months studying orchestration while having full access to his musicians.

Smith cautiously agreed, and quickly purchased orchestration texts by Samuel Adler, Rimsky Korsakov and Cecil Forsyth, and immersed himself in the heavy hitters of the classical world. He was especially drawn to composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Ireland, Stravinsky, Berg, Bartók, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Satie, Takemitsu, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and his all-time favourite, Sergei Prokofiev. The outcome was that he composed his first classical work, a concerto entitled ‘Unirsi In Matrimonio (To Be Joined Together)’, which he worked on through the spring of 1989.

Smith remembers taking the job very seriously indeed, scouring Scotland for the correct view to inspire his work. He ended up in Dunbar facing the red rocks and ruined remains of Dunbar Castle, where he spent a couple of weeks there composing continuously every day from morning until night. When the work was finally premiered it was met with general critical approval, and praise in particular from respected classical critic Michael Tumulty who wrote in the Glasgow Herald,“ The movements work as mood pictures, full of atmosphere and outbursts of drama”. Smith’s own personal feelings towards his first classical work were (and remain) more harshly critical!

By 1991, Smith was living in Paris, composing music for his fourth Blue Note recording, entitled Paris, and at the same time studying classical composition, counterpoint, fugue, functional harmony. Of course, he listened to a lot of classical music. He went to concerts and studied scores, as well as reading texts by Hindemith and Schoenberg. He also played improvised music with local musicians such as Daniel Humair, Marc Ducret, Jean-François Jenny-Clark, Jacques Mahieux and Loïc Dequidt.

Smith quickly followed that first concerto with another work for strings and saxophone, entitled Un Écossais À Paris (A Scotsman in Paris), which he also toured with the Scottish Ensemble. By 1992, he had also composed Les Nouveaux Jeunes, twelve sketches for saxophone and piano and dedicated to Les Six, but none of the jazz musicians he knew could play them fluently, so he was somewhat disheartened.

Luckily, the following year (and quite by chance), he met the virtuoso classical pianist Murray McLachlan at a party hosted by his friend, the late comic and pianist George Donald. That evening, Murray said he would play anything Smith composed for him. That statement alone encouraged Smith to write his first of two sonatas with Murray very much in mind, Hall of Mirrors from 1993, and Dreaming with Open Eyes from 1995.

After touring the material for several years they recorded Gymnopédie for Linn Records. That duo recording with Murray McLachlan moved one writer from the Inverness Courier to observe that they were “Powerful yet lyrical works…they offer opportunities for improvisation,” and Crescendo and Jazz Magazine wrote “A confirmation of Tommy Smith’s remarkable gifts… a blend of the thoughtful, the feelingful and the decidedly adventurous.”

Still a novice in this genre (but an eternal student) Smith felt he was making progress at a snail’s pace. Up to that point, he had performed with Gunther Schuller and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which only inspired him further. So, between 1994 and 1998, he began building the forces necessary for a much bigger orchestral work.

He sought out lessons, tutorials and meetings for guidance and direction with all the major classical composers of Scotland including people like James MacMillan, John McLeod, Nigel Osborne, and William Sweeney. Out of this process came Marine for the Chamber Group of Scotland, which was
inspired and utilized the poetry of Paul Verlaine and featured saxophone, mezzo-soprano, piano, percussion and cello.

Then came his most important work to date in the form of a saxophone concerto entitled Hiroshima (1998). It was commissioned and premiered by the Orchestra of St. John Smith‘s Square at Chelmsford Cathedral, and included strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, piano and saxophone. Slowly the forces were getting larger, but states he still had much to learn, especially with regard to form and dynamics.

As solo saxophonist, he was thrilled to play for composer Sally Beamish’s The Knotgrass Elegy, commissioned for the 2001 BBC Proms, and performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. Fiona Maddocks writing in the Guardian commented that, “The saxophonist Tommy Smith, holding all together with his eloquent wizardry, brought the piece to a wistful close with a forlorn meditation.”

In 2002, thirteen years after working with the Scottish Ensemble they invited Smith to join them for a tour performing Chick Corea’s music. He quickly arranged 60-minutes of his Children’s Songs; although, added interludes and composed additional new material. Michael Tumulty from The Glasgow Herald remarked at the time that, “It transcends technical and stylistic barriers between written and improvised music, resulting in a composition that preserves absolutely the character of the originals”.

Another classical music endeavour that pushed him along the path of self-improvement was a massive undertaking for the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra‘s 40th anniversary in 2003. A concerto, entitled Edinburgh, was specially written for the occasion, and featured saxophone, bass and drums, accompanied by a one hundred-strong symphony orchestra. The work subsequently toured Scotland, Estonia, Russia, and Finland.

Time trundled on and Smith’s hopes of venturing further into classical composition were dying, but in 2008 those hopes were resurrected when he was invited to perform with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to perform a revision of his Edinburgh work. However, he was delighted that the performance was opposite his good friend Branford Marsalis who played Sally Beamish’s composition, The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone brilliantly. It was a wonderful experience and spurred Smith on to study harder and deeper.

Around this period of ‘reawakening’, Smith was invited to play with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for the 2012 BBC Proms Last Night Celebrations in Scotland. The concert took place at Glasgow’s City Halls, and the programme included his revised arrangements of Chick Corea’s ‘Children Songs and a piece by Rachmaninoff called Vocalise, which was actually recommended to him by Branford Marsalis, while they were out playing golf at Kingsbarns in Fife.

After this, the seeds for composition were truly sown, and Smith had asked the director of the BBC/SSO, Gavin Reid, to keep him in mind if there was an opportunity to record. Time passed silently and slowly until January 2015, when Smith received a call that there was a three-day opening in May 2015. He set immediately to work and every day sat at his piano and composed, which for him was the most enjoyable part of the process.

“Every day the music takes you on a journey and you never quite know where it’s going to end,” says Smith. During that time, he did feel that the feverish period of writing and orchestrating that continued unabated until the recording dates in May of that year was killing him. He had many other duties to attend to, including his work as Head of Jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, various concert series with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra that included the music of Strayhorn and shows with Kurt Elling.

He was also mixing and producing for Spartacus Records and juggling three different tours with Arild Andersen’s Trio, Pino Jodice Quintet, and his duo with Brian Kellock. Smith thought, “if I could only compose and only do that, now that would be heaven!” But being involved in so many projects was bordering on purgatory, as he only had 5 months to compose and orchestrate a 30-minute work.

Clark Rundell and Tommy Smith
at the recording sessions for Modern Jacobite
Photo credit: Derek Clark

Finally Jacobite was born and it’s best described as a piece of modern symphonic music that features saxophone and many other soloists in the orchestra, so it’s quite unconventional. It’s certainly not a full-blown concerto with the soloist flying in all virtuosic, especially when the first entrance of the saxophone appears subtly after two and a half minutes of orchestral texture and solos from cello and flute.

The saxophone melodies and improvisations act as the main narrator throughout the piece that speaks to all the thematic material. Composition and improvisation are so closely linked it’s difficult to separate them, and since Smith’s a disciple of Gary Burton his main concept, at all times, is thematic development; he’s always in two places at once focusing on a storyline that continues into the distance.

The two main themes are ancient Scottish folk songs, although, there is much more in there. The music travels through numerous journeys and variations, but remains fixated on an overarching aim to conceive of something subtle, organic and expressive that acknowledges a few of the major events in Scottish history.

His titles for the movements are simply significant dates in the calendar; 1698, 1715, and 1745. The CD title, Modern Jacobite, refers to the 21st Century Scots who similarly pursue greater self-determination, but this time around they’re armed only with their intellect, their ideas and their skills. Smith hope listeners will enjoy his departure into this music, which is very dear to his heart and soul.

(*) Michael Clark is a writer and publicist, whose clients include Tommy Smith and SNJO

Modern Jacobite with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be released on 26th August, and is available from Spartacus Records – LINK
There is also an EPK with extracts from the album on YouTube

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. I like the snippet of background information regarding the context in whch he wrote the material for the 'Paris' album (a particular favourite of mine).

  2. Outstanding work forged in the mind of the masterful musician Tommy Smith. This work has inspired me to study further into my Scottish heritage in particular the Jacobite uprising.

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