“I want to try to take listeners on journeys they’ll remember,” says saxophonist and composer Tom Smith, whose debut album Gecko (Basho) has just been released. Profile by John Fordham:
For a musician in only his 25th year, Tom Smith has already collected plenty of accolades from British jazz stars who know the real deal when they hear it. Fellow-saxophonists Jason Yarde and Soweto Kinch are among many who have lauded Smith’s distinctive timbre and all-round musicianship – the former marvelled at his ‘fantastic sound, really assured playing and phrasing’, and the latter his ‘technically outstanding abilities and punchy, soulful tone’. Back when the young Londoner was 18 and still at school, Django Bates memorably commended not only his instrumental skills but his stage charisma too – not all that common a quality among advanced and studious contemporary jazzmakers. ‘So passionate, punchy and joyful’ Bates declared in 2014 when Smith was among the finalists on the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year contest. ‘The band was vibed up by this young nutter at the front!’
In the years since that dynamic debut on a big stage, Tom Smith has occupied the lead alto chair in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, gigged all over the UK jazz circuit, appeared with Switzerland’s international Generations Festival Big Band in 2018 to work with revered American composer Maria Schneider, and his compositions and arrangements have been performed on BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night, by British soul star Beverley Knight’s orchestra, and by Ian Shaw and Julian Clary with the London Gay Big Band.
But for all Tom Smith’s wide orchestral experience and sophisticated understanding of how to write as well as play for big lineups, it’s a group at the opposite end of the scale that shapes the music on his debut album this month and has been in the foreground of his thoughts for four years. Smith formed the Gecko trio with vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield and pianist Will Barry – two friends and fellow-alumni from the Royal Academy of Music’s jazz course – in 2016, and the three have steadily developed a signature sound that balances intimate reflectiveness with a rhythmic drive and joyous buoyancy that blows away any thoughts that ‘chamber-jazz’ means only cerebral introspection. With the eponymously-named album ‘Gecko’ – funded by the group’s receipt of a Peter Whittingham Development Award in 2018, and produced by Smith’s former Academy teacher Tim Garland – this classy trio of adventurous young musicians confirm just how collectively intuitive their long association has made them, and how open-minded they are in a repertoire that embraces bitter-sweet waltzes, closely-entwined group improv and fearless soloing, country-tinged dances, staccato postbop voyages (inspired by some of keen gamer Smith’s online skirmishes), and subtly tender episodes kindled by reflections on identity and destiny in a challenging but enthralling world.
Tom Smith at Ronnie Scott’s. Photo Credit Carl Hyde
‘Looking back, I think the origins of this music come from around the time I played the second BBC Young Jazz Musician contest four years ago,’ Smith says. ‘I’d started my course at the Academy by then, and I was growing into a different set of influences which were maybe letting my personality come out more. At school, I’d studied a lot of Charlie Parker, Lou Donaldson, Cannonball Adderley, classic bebop and hard bop, and of course I loved all that. But at the Academy, I was simultaneously getting into those real muscly saxophonists like Chris Potter and Joshua Redman – people who really tank it – as well as more searching, introspective artists like Kenny Wheeler, Tim Garland, Mark Turner. I also started to like the idea of a band without drums. I’d loved the sound and ideas of the Italian saxophonist Rosario Giuliani since I’d heard him years before and transcribed his solos from Guy Barker’s “Amadeus Project” album, and I came across him again on a video in a trio with the vibraphonist Joe Locke and pianist Dado Moroni – their interweaving of long lines was amazing, and so was their atmosphere onstage, they were so exciting to watch. I also liked Stan Sulzmann’s Neon trio with Jim Hart on vibes and Gwilym (Simcock) on piano, and a wonderful drummerless Kenny Wheeler album from 2006 called “What Now?”, with Chris Potter, John Taylor, and Dave Holland. All those elements have gone into Gecko I think, and of course all the influences from many other places that Jonny and Will have brought.’
Tom Smith’s jazz curiosity had been aroused by family connections long before. His father was an amateur bass-player, and his grandfather had been a professional Dixieland drummer in his early life. Smith was drawn to the excitement of big band records as a child, but his father always introduced new ideas subtly, in the car or on the home sound-system, without forcing the boy to consider any of it as a lesson. He came to appreciate early piano lessons that helped him to understand structure and harmony, learned the clarinet until he was big enough to manage an alto saxophone, and at London’s St Paul’s School was fortunate enough to be taught jazz by the inspiring swing saxophonist Katie Brown. Smith joined the Royal Academy of Music’s junior jazz classes at 15, and enrolled on the undergraduate jazz course three years later, studying saxophone with Tim Garland and Stan Sulzmann, and composition with Pete Churchill. His fast progress and early cultivation of a personal sound then helped to win him the only UK musician’s place among student contenders from all over the world in the 2018 Generations Festival Big Band, and a revelatory opportunity to join workshops run by composer Maria Schneider and her David Bowie-collaborating saxophonist Donny McCaslin.
‘Hers was such a different approach, with sounds I didn’t know a big band could make,’ Smith recalls. ‘It opened up so many new thoughts – how to improvise in a big band in ways I’d never considered, against a whole load of backing that was completely different from big band backing I knew. How to craft a solo that reacts to little things going on in the writing, and which lead you in a certain way without dictating anything. Donny McCaslin talked very interestingly about all that. He mentioned a piece of Maria’s that starts free and gets more structured, and ends on beautiful chords – he said he’d played it 50 or 60 times, all differently, but at the same point in the ending always hit the same altissimo note, which he felt was the only sound that could belong there. It made you think about improvisation – what is it? What’s free and what isn’t? What’s right and what’s wrong at particular moments? Learning to play jazz can be a slower process than learning to play classical music when you’re young – I think because it’s not only about learning a language, but then learning how to make it your own.’
The evidence that Tom Smith has learned exactly that is audible all over ‘Gecko’, the repertoire of which comprises pieces from the past five years of the group’s life, and its members’ journeys together and separately. Smith is also unreservedly grateful for the input of his former teacher Tim Garland as producer, whose decisiveness, fresh ideas, and ‘understanding if I was missing the arc of a song’ he sees as crucial to the album’s focus and variety.
Tom Smith with Conor Chaplin. Photo credit: Colin Swain
‘Forming Gecko was about the right players,’ Smith recalls. ‘It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t already been playing with Will and Jonny. The rhythmic elements in this group are completely affected by playing without bass and drums. So being a saxophonist playing with two compers – Will and Jonny both playing chordal instruments – forces you to rework things, and have a different approach. I was very much inspired by Stan Sulzmann’s and Tim Garland’s trios early on, they both wrote tight arrangements for interlocking piano and vibes grooves. But I think our methods have evolved through working them out on gigs, and as we’ve gone on, I’ve found I increasingly liked not too much direction. I’m writing more open-ended and less structured compositions than I normally would for this band.
‘But I’ve always found it easiest to write music when I’m writing about something close and personal to me, perhaps a story, or some piece of art or writing that has spoken to me,’ Smith continues. ‘The absolute hardest thing to do is to start with a blank page and have no idea how to fill it, so having a story to tell can give you a structure, an arc and a mood for the piece. It also makes it so much easier to perform the music if there is a real story and an intention behind it. On this album, both “John and Alex” and “Curiosity” were written about my relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, which is a central part of my identity – they were originally written for my band Queertet, which brings LGBTQ+ musicians together to celebrate and tell the stories of LGBTQ+ jazz musicians through the ages. Jazz has been very behind the curve when it comes to accepting gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender musicians, and sexual or gender orientation has rarely been celebrated as it should be – so expressing this story in the songs felt like a very important thing for me to do.
Of course inspiration can come from anywhere, and some of these songs have some pretty comical and ridiculous inspirations. “Flamenco Carlos” was written about a duel I once had on a Star Wars game with an online rival, “Steampunk Tendencies” – originally a big band arrangement which was fascinating to condense for the trio – was inspired by the Bioshock video games and their steampunk art style, cities on hot air balloons and all that. So many things seem on hold at the moment, but in the future, I want Gecko’s music to keep growing, I want to develop the repertoire of my septet, and explore ideas for a big band. I always try to think of my pieces as stories. I want to try to take listeners on journeys they’ll remember.’
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‘Gecko’ is out now on Basho Records.
Gecko. L-R: Jonny Mansfield, Tom Smith, Will Barry. Photo credit: Monika S. Jakubowska