In Lockdown with…. saxophonist Giacomo Smith

Saxophonist and clarinettist Giacomo Smith is a leading light in Kansas Smitty’s House Band, the era-spanning talented musicians based around their eponymous bar in Hackney’s Broadway Market. The group have quickly built up an enthusiastic following with sell-out shows at Ronnie Scott’s and the Jazz Café. They draw extensively on earlier jazz styles re-invented to produce an original repertoire, which is also introducing a younger audience to pre-WWII jazz voices. Interview/feature by Mark McKergow.

Giacomo Smith. Djangofestivalen, 2017, Oslo. Photo credit: Tore Sætre/Creative Commons

First album you purchased as a “jazz musician”? That would probably be Wynton Marsalis’ Standard Time, and also Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. I was born in Italy and grew up in a small town in upstate New York, my mom played piano and had a transcription book of Time Out. I was 9, 10, 11 years old and this guy in Borders Books and Music would introduce me to things like the Rudy Van Gelder CD editions which were coming out – they were only $10 as opposed to $25 for a pop CD, that’s easier to deal with!. I remember getting Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers Moanin’ album with Benny Golson and Lee Morgan on it, and also Larry Young’s Unity. What are you listening to right now? Anything that doesn’t have a commercial edge. I am in a phase trying to listen to artists who are not trying to sell themselves. It’s a such a problematic time on the planet, I feel I need to hear truth in music. There is such a widespread niggling feeling of deceit in every quarter. I never wanted this to happen, I want to advocate truth and equality. I’m listening a lot to Alan Lomax’s recordings of folk artists – he’s a hero of mine, there is no better way of learning a story than to hear all these viewpoints. I am listening to the Smithsonian Folkways series, folk blues artists from the ’50s and ’60s. Bill Broonzy used to say that all music is folk music, as he never saw a mule singing a song! An album that’s really nice is The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier, from the mid-late ’60s. He was recorded by Sam Charters, who was like a sort of Alan Lomax but a bit more concerned about selling records. There are two bass players on the album as Callier was into Coltrane at the time! It doesn’t sound anything like late Coltrane though.  I feel like in the ’60s, particularly in the USA, there was this rebirth of culture and big cross-over, people were open to this cross-genre exploration of ideas. Now there is so much delineation – you play trad jazz, I play modern jazz, that kind of thing. Lomax and people like him were bringing people into the public eye, putting education before sales. I love that our audience today might come and learn about an artist or a mood of music they’ve never heard of. They can experience something new and have a good concert, and maybe some want to dig deeper – it’s a cross between the Golden Gate Quartet and Bunk Johnson, or Ravel, or Brad Meldhau, or whoever. You can enjoy it at face value or you can explore further. Have you done or watched any livestream gigs since lockdown? Our Live At Five gigs have become quite a fun production. I think we should have done it years ago! It’s one positive to come out of this very difficult scenario. We run a bar, so we exist for this community of people who enjoy our music, and we also have people who inspire us who are living in London who can come and hang out.  We closed the bar a week before the mandated lockdown – it’s a small place. We have an advocate, Ed Cooke, who runs a language learning thing called Memrise – we went over there and started doing live shows, with social distancing. Then everyone was mandated to stay home so for two months we recorded interview shows with people like Keyon Harrold, Ricky Riccardi from New York, Bastien Brison from France, all the Kansas Smitty’s guys. These weren’t live stream gigs but they helped us keep the spirit of the bar going. Now the lockdown is lifted we are back taping shows three days a week, plus a bonus show for our Patreon supporters. It’s been great, it’s cool to document the scene I fell in love with when I moved here. There seemed to be so much work and I’d meet people every week, it’s such a broad and vibrant scene but nobody talks about it, it’s in the fabric of the place. Now everyone can connect – you can see Enrico Tomasso’s live streams (he’s a link to Louis Armstrong), Adrian Cox is doing livestreams on Facebook, Cécile McLorin Salvant is doing them. You can learn from these people even more than when you were sitting next to them on a gig. Most memorable moment in your career or education? It would be when we sold out our first Kansas Smitty’s show at Shoreditch Town Hall. That was an amazing moment for me – I love being on a team, and the success of that gig wasn’t my own, it was the success of my team. That made me realise a lot about what I want to bring to the arts scene. Team work is invaluable. We sold out that gig as a team, the guys outplayed what I did, it makes making art less vulnerable, it makes you bolder. I always break down the band to take the spotlight. I saw Chicago and Earth Wind and Fire when I was a kid as a double bill, they showcased everyone. All those guys can sing, play the shit out of the their instruments, I remember thinking it was so cool. One minute they’re doing a hit single, then the percussionist is out front doing a song, then there’s a piano solo… It’s like a variety show, it’s not just one act. So that was huge for me to realise that could work for us.  People will say that’s idealistic, you have to be a name, it’s about your career… At Shoreditch we saw it really working, hundreds of people bought tickets to see that, and they knew what they were coming for. It was a really affirming moment. Instrument you wish you played? Cello. I love going back to the Lomax country blues and early jazz, Armstrong, Bechet, I love when people play instruments in a vocal style. That’s what I love about Adrian Cox’s clarinet playing; he’s not out there to play faster than anyone else, he’s a very vocal player and you get the sense he’s crying out when he’s playing. The blues players – Fred McDowell, Bill Broonzy – they played the guitar in a vocal way. For me the cello resonates in a similar way to the tenor saxophone, it’s a very low sound, almost a baritone. When I listen to the Bach suites, the Elgar concerto, the Debussy sonata, I think “Wow, I’d love to make that sound on that instrument”. It’s so close to what I imagine my singing voice might sound like if I could sing (which I can’t). Has this time in isolation inspired any new creative ideas? Yes, it’s inspired the creation of Kansas Smitty’s digital space – it’s a huge catalyst for us to think about our identity, to make sure people have access to good live music. We like being in touch with them and we like fostering that community. Musically we are working on a new album, but we would have done that anyway – the new thing is the the broadcasting and curation of online events. What are you most looking forward to once this is over? I am lucky, we get to play music together, we have a safe space to play music. But I’d love to go to a gig – it almost wouldn’t matter who! I am a huge music fan as much as a player, and there is no substitute for being in the room, which it what made so many of us fall in love with the music. Now young people are threatened with not having that experience of seeing a person play an instrument, feel the people next to you. I’d love to see Eric Bibb play, Sullivan Fortner is a fantastic pianist, Cécile McLorin Salvant is a very special one, one of the best we’ve got. And we are going to do an online launch for the album on 26 June too! It’s about as close as you can get to going to a gig right now. Tune into Live at Five. Kansas Smitty’s new single Judgement was released on 6 May 2020 (including a feature solo from Giacomo himself), with Dreamlane and Temple Of Bel to follow. These are all from the new album Things Happened Here, released on 26 June 2020 on the Ever label. LINKS:  YouTube: Judgement (single)  YouTube: Dreamlane  Link to Kansas Smitty’s Live At Five page for regular online performances 

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