Album review

Tommy Smith Sextet – ‘Evolution’

Tommy Smith Sextet – Evolution.

(Download only, available from BandCamp. Album Review by Patrick Hadfield)


In a recording career spanning nearly forty years (so far), Tommy Smith has a large and rich discography. He recently made several albums available through BandCamp which have either not been released before, or not been easily available for many years. Evolution is of particular interest, featuring as it does several giants of the music, and also because there is previously unreleased material.

Evolution was one of several projects that came out of collaborations between Smith and the late Scottish poet Edwin Morgan; Smith says that he considers Evolution as a continuation of the pair’s earlier work Planet Waves, which they toured with a sextet of British musicians and was last year brought into the repertoire of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra to commemorate Morgan’s centenary. Morgan and Smith developed a practice of developing ideas on which to work together, with Morgan then writing poems from which Smith took inspiration to compose music.

The download-only reissue of Evolution contains significantly more material than the CD version, released in 2005, with pieces that weren’t included at that time and extended versions of some tunes that were. Smith believes the version he has now made available matches his original conception of the work. It adds up to a substantial suite, nearly two hours of music (including a bonus track which is not formally part of Evolution). The poems are also included, both in the extensive sleeve notes and in photographs of Morgan’s original typescript. Smith has also made his score for Evolution available, should any musicians wish to join up the dots.

Evolution was recorded in New York with a stellar band of musicians. Joining Smith on tenor is Joe Lovano; John Scofield‘s guitar completes the front line. The rhythm section comprises Bill Stewart, best known perhaps for his work with Scofield, on drums; John Patitucci on bass; and John Taylor on piano. As one would expect, there is some lovely playing. My ears are not sufficient to distinguish Smith’s saxophone from Lovano’s, even if I can detect a difference in tone, so they have to share the high praise.

The music demonstrates the breadth of Smith’s composing, from the slow, moody and mysterious ballad of Easter Island (1722 A.D.) Part 2, which features some beautiful, wistful saxophone,through the more straight ahead The Lisbon Earthquake (1755 A.D.) to the rockier Woodstock (1969 A.D.), which allows Scofield to stretch out and provides a lovely bass solo from Patitucci.

On an album of this length with such accomplished musicians, there are many standout moments. And although perhaps not immediately accessible – it is quite complex – it is music that keeps giving: there are new things heard with every repeated listen. Each composition flows from one mood to another, drawing one along a path as the suite develops. Considering its length, at the end of each listen I wanted to hear more: more Scofield, more Lovano, more Smith, more Patitucci, more Stewart.

And in particular, more Taylor. His piano features as much as the others’ playing, so maybe it is just knowing since his death in 2015 that we won’t hear any more new music from him. Which makes the download bonus track extra special. Recorded whilst waiting for the other musicians to arrive at the studio one day, Smith and Taylor recorded Pure Imagination from the film of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Their duet closes the album with an exquisite dose of quiet minimalism.

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

With thanks to Tommy Smith for discussing the background to this reissue.

Tommy Smith and Peter Johnstone celebrate the life of Chick Corea in an online performance for the Aberdeen Jazz Festival on Saturday 27 March at 7.30pm and available for a week after that.

Categories: Album review

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