Live review

REVIEW: Tommy Smith Sextet with Tam Dean Burn at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Tommy Smith and Andy Panayi
Photo: © Patrick Hadfield

Tommy Smith Sextet with Tam Dean Burn (The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. 18 April 2019. Review and pictures by Patrick Hadfield)

Tommy Smith is no stranger to the Queen’s Hall: he first played there in 1981 and has returned many times since. I first saw him play there in 1984 (I think!) in a benefit gig to raise funds to help him go to Berklee. As part of the Queen’s Hall’s 40th anniversary celebrations, Smith is performing four concerts covering different aspects of his career. The first of these concerts revisited his 1996 album Beasts of Scotland.

This work, commissioned by Glasgow Jazz Festival, was a collaboration with poet Edwin Morgan: Morgan composed poems and Smith music on Scotland’s animals, great and small. The resulting album has Morgan’s poems printed on the liner notes, although not his reading of them. He did tour with them, reading his work before the relevant music, including a show at the Queen’s Hall.

Twenty three years on, this gig allowed a re-evaluation of the music. Smith was able to include two of the sextet who recorded the album with him – drummer Tom Gordon and flautist and alto player Andy Panayi. They were joined by two members of Smith’s regular quartet, Calum Gourlay on bass and Pete Johnstone on piano, with trumpeter James Copus completing the band. Morgan died a decade ago; reading his poems in his place was actor Tam Dean Burn, who has also worked with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, narrating Smith’s arrangement of Peter and the Wolf.

Tam Dean Burn
Photo: © Patrick Hadfield

The concert featured nine of the original ten pieces which make up the suite – Smith explained that the music for one, Red Deer, had been lost and he hasn’t had time to recreate it. The remaining nine sections still made for a considerable work, stretching across 90 minutes. The suite was was played in the order the tracks appeared on the original CD, which is currently out of print.

The music stood the test of time remarkably: it didn’t sound the slightest bit dated, but rather was inventive, lively and fresh. Smith seemed similarly youthful and energetic; his playing was impassioned throughout the evening. His sax screamed and wailed; it cried and moaned.

The other musicians seemed in their element too. Panayi, mostly playing flute, added depth and texture; his alto playing balanced Smith’s tenor. Copus also played two instruments, his trumpet being switched for more sonorous, moody flugelhorn, often within the same piece.

James Copus
Photo: © Patrick Hadfield

Gordon played an array of percussion as well as his drums. He was kept busy throughout, even in the quietest moments. On the mournful, haunting Seal, the penultimate section, he came out from behind his drums to sit at the front of the stage playing the berimbau, a Brazilian gourd-based stringed percussion instrument to hypnotic effect.

Burn’s reading of each poem before the relevant piece of music was an integral part of the show. He interpretated the words with his voice and body – this was no dry poetry reading but acting out the poems. During the music he sat quietly, listening intently, but when the time came for his performance, he threw his whole being into the words.

The depth of Smith’s writing came across too. Across the nine pieces, he reflected a variety of moods. I couldn’t say that I could identify the breast by the music – one high point, with one of the sweetest melodies and fast, insistent playing from the horns, represented Midge, the bane of a Scots summer – but the use of tone and texture created a range of impressions. There were langourous Salmon, tense Wolf, and a warlike Spider, building on Morgan’s paean to the soldier, Robert the Bruce. Gannet featured some lovely piano by Johnstone.

Beasts of Scotland is an impressive work, and this revival represented a considerable and very welcome achievement.

Despite the suite’s length, there was a short support set by a young Glasgow band, Square One, led by guitarist Joe Williamson. Featuring Pete Johnstone for his first performance of the evening – he certainly had his work cut out – together with David Bowden on bass and irrepressible Stephen Henderson on drums, they played four numbers. Bowden had written two of the pieces – the slow, soulful Winter Walk which included a beautiful solo from Johnstone, and Knockan Crag, a suitably Scottish theme for an evening recognising Beasts of Scotland.

(The series of concerts celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Queen’s Hall continues with Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock on 13 June, The Tommy Smith Quartet Embodying the Light on 17 October and Tommy Smith solo on 19 December. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra featuring Tommy Smith and Laura Jurd play Sketches of Spain on 28 June.)

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.

Categories: Live review

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