Tom Smith – Gecko
(Digital download only. Basho Records SRCD58-2. Review by Julian Maynard-Smith)
Tom Smith, jazz saxophonist? Perhaps like me you did a double take, wondering whether Scottish tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith, as in founder of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, has shortened his name. He hasn’t, and Tom Smith is no more Tommy Smith than Pete King (as in tenor player and long-time manager of Ronnie Scott’s) was Peter King (as in alto player).
But there are similarities. Both Tommy (b.1967) and Tom (b.1995) studied at prestigious music colleges (Berklee College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, respectively), both are strongly associated with jazz orchestras (Tom having occupied the lead alto chair in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra) – and while Tommy leapt to international fame when he played with the Gary Burton Quintet on the 1987 ECM album Whiz Kids when he was only twenty, so Tom at twenty-five has created an assured debut album with a vibraphonist (Jonny Mansfield) – albeit in a trio rather than quintet, completed by the pianist Will Barry. And going back to Peter King, it’s not even too fanciful to hear parallels between Peter and Tom in the mercurial fluency of Smith’s alto lines – right from the crisply tongued opening bars of Flamenco Carlos that kick off the album.
Alto with two keyboard percussion instruments is not only an unusual trio line-up but also a risky one; but vibes and piano manage to avoid treading on each other’s toes, not just in the tight twists of unison, counterpoint, call and response but also in the spaciousness of the recording. The vibes in particular ripple beautifully between left and right channels, particularly on Flamenco Carlos, which was inspired by a two-hour duel between Smith and an online gaming rival – and it’s easy to imagine the sonic bouncing back and forth as two online gamers fight it out with each other. Likewise with Steampunk Tendencies, also inspired by video games (specifically the art style of Bioshock videos), which has plenty of energetic jousting between piano and vibes.
Other inspirations include LGBTQ+ themes, particularly poignant on Curiosity, which starts with peddle-drenched vibes followed by fragile and tentative alto that gradually gains energy once the piano joins – like a miniature character arc of growing self-assurance sketched out in just over seven minutes. John and Alex, a waltz written for a wedding, is a fine showcase for Smith’s warm-toned bass clarinet, reprised on Blueish – which, along with Anthem, was written (according to the Basho Records website) ‘about the vastness of the world, and how it seems to make individual problems seem insignificant’.
That observation about individual problems and insignificance perhaps says something about Smith’s modesty, Anthem in particular showcasing how the overall feel of the album is that of a three-way conversation rather than leader plus support: classical-sounding piano segues into a piano/vibes duet and it’s not until over halfway through that saxophone joins in, building to a growling cry before returning to quietude. Viking Dance has a similar big build on saxophone, and the conversational quality is again particularly noticeable on House In The Clouds, a playful tune full of cascading alto runs and staccato stutters. The title of the latter perhaps reminds us of the aerial quality of a trio lacking the ballast of bass and drums – but you don’t really notice their absence because there’s plenty of rhythmic energy between the trio.
The lyrical Everyday Epic rounds out this enjoyable set, a tune (again, according to the Basho Records website) written to capture ‘the feeling of being on top of the world when everything is going right’ – and, judging by this joyful and confident debut album, it certainly is.