Tommy Smith contemplates cathedrals of sound

Internationally acclaimed Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith plays three concerts in cathedrals during July, writes Rob Adams.

Smith, whose most recent recording, Solow, features solo versions of praise songs, including a Gaelic psalm, plays St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen on Thursday 8th, Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire on Thursday 15th and St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on Saturday 17th.

All three are venues Smith has experience of playing in his role as founder-director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra but with very different projects in each case. The orchestra played a choral piece in Aberdeen with US singing star Kurt Elling. It played a Mozart adaptation in Lichfield with Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone and just recently it filmed and recorded the four-concert streamed series Where Rivers Meet with Russian artist Maria Rud in the 12th century St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.

“It’s one of the perks of always being first to arrive to set up for these concerts that I get to play a few phrases just by myself before anyone else turns up and to experience the acoustics without any amplification,” says Smith. “In every case, and in a just a few minutes, I’ve been able to get a sense of the quality of sound these old stone buildings can offer and I always want to spend more time in them.”

Smith has been playing solo concerts since he inadvertently made his solo debut at Islay Jazz Festival in the Hebrides when the drummer he was due to duet with, Tom Bancroft missed his ferry. The organisers suggested that Smith could entertain the audience while waiting for Bancroft to arrive on the next sailing.

“That was a baptism of fire,” he says. “I just had to wing it and fortunately nobody threw anything at me! I’ve since made a solo album in Hamilton Mausoleum, which has a fifteen second delay that’s really quite amazing, and more recently I’ve played in cathedrals and churches including Dunfermline Abbey, which was very special because Robert the Bruce’s tomb was right behind me as I played.”

During the pandemic, Smith has kept busy with the jazz course he founded in 2009 at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, whose graduates including saxophonist Matt Carmichael, trombonist Liam Shortall and pianists Fergus McCreadie and Pete Johnstone have enriched the currently vibrant Scottish scene. Smith has also overseen the editing and release of a series of Scottish National Jazz Orchestra videos, the most recent of which, Where Rivers Meet featured tributes to saxophone icons Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton and Dewey Redman with Maria Rud painting live in response to the music. Where Rivers Meet remains available to view on the orchestra’s website until 15th August.

For his upcoming cathedral concerts Smith will play acoustically, letting the music breathe and develop in the natural ambience. His set lists, chosen spontaneously, will draw on tunes from the jazz, folk and praise song traditions.

“I see these concerts as a celebration of melody,” he says. “They might also be regarded as a chance for contemplation as people think about what we’ve been through over the past fifteen months and get to enjoy the possibility of being able to share live music events again after the enforced silence. I’m hoping to play more concerts in cathedrals because they all have different characteristics and that makes every concert unique.”

Ticket info: AberdeenLichfieldEdinburgh.

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