Album review

Kansas Smitty’s – ‘Plunderphonia’

Kansas Smitty’s – Plunderphonia
(7K!. Album review by Mark McKergow)

The Kansas Smitty’s collective morphs into yet another bewitching persona as saxophonist and leader Giacomo Smith produces a startling collection based on re-imagined 1920s music for German experimental label 7K!. The results are accessible, skilful and totally connected with the jazz tradition in new and thought-provoking ways.

Kansas Smitty’s has been a vital presence on the London music scene these past few years. Even when they seem to be digging deep into jazz tradition, they turn out to be actually reinventing it. Their eponymous debut CD in 2015 saw Giacomo Smith and his compadres in a homage to pre-WW2 jazz – but every one of the 10 tracks, while sounding like the old days, was actually an original composition from within the group. From their base in Hackney’s Broadway Market they both built a young new audience and took the establishment by storm with headlining shows at Ronnie Scott’s and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

A series of lockdown streamed shows saw them teaming up with a parade of talent from arch-New Orleans clarinettist Adrian Cox to hip’n’happening keys/vocalist Reuben James, and presenting music from Mingus to The Meters (all these shows are still available on Youtube). One of these sessions saw drummer Jas Kayser invited to sit in, and she takes a full and pivotal role in this new album with an outstanding display of controlled rhythm dynamics. Both Smitty’s (Digital Award) and Keyser (Breakthrough Act Of The Year) were winners at this week’s Jazz FM awards, and it’s an auspicious sign that they are working together so closely here.

This album has been produced for the 7K! label, itself a reinterpretation of the !K7 DJ-Kicks series. The twist here is that the tracks are not originals but start out from 1920s classics from Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and even Maurice Ravel, which are treated as starting points for new directions and performances. It’s as if Smith has ‘sampled’ something crucial from the piece and allowed it new airspace in the 21st century. Some of the originals are quite recognisable, while others appear as a short phrase or even a feel to be built upon. It’s audacious, beguiling – and it works.

The opening track is Morton’s High Society, a classic New Orleans march if ever there was one. (Anyone else remember John Stone, landlord of Bristol’s Old Duke pub, mounting a beer crate with bowler hat and baton to conduct the assembled throng in the chorus?). Well, here it’s Kayser’s rolling snare drum that sets us off, with Smith picking up half a phrase on soprano sax before launching into a shuffling and swaggering tune that half channels the original, modulating in modal sweeps. Long-term Smitty’s collaborators Joe Webb (Rhodes piano here) and Ferg Ireland on bass back up effectively, but it’s Kayser’s drumming that stands out by being both at one with the music and yet leading it and setting the mood.

New Orleans Bump, the first single from the album, is another Jelly Roll Morton tune, more recognisable and slowed down. Trumpeter Dylan Jones (Ezra Collective) leads the melody while Kayser shows deft touch on snare drum, echoing beats like a living (and much more subtle) TR-808 drum machine. Inner Mist is a take on Bix Beiderbecke’s piano tune In A Mist, and shows quite how harmonically advanced was the young cornet genius at the age of 24. Water Dance is a shimmering take on Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, the arpeggiated melody again transformed by Kayser’s complex drum patterns and a fine soprano sax solo from Smith. 

I’ll leave disentangling the other tracks to you. Rest assured that whether you want to dig into each one forensically or simply enjoy the ear-catching music, you’ll have a fine time. And if all this post-modernism is too much, the album closes with a straight piano solo of Jelly Roll’s tune The Pearls, as if to say “We still love you” to these giants of early 20th century music. 

The release of Plunderphonia will be celebrated at a launch gig at EartH in Dalston on Saturday 20 November 2021 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, which will feature Laura Jurd on trumpet alongside musicians from the recording.

LINKS: Plunderphonia on 7K!

Launch gig on 20 November 2021

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