Feature/Interview

Tom Smith (new album ‘Drifter Days’, with Daniel Bulatkin Trio – Czech Republic)

London-based saxophonist Tom Smith has a new double album ‘Drifter Days’ with a trio led by Czech pianist Daniel Bulatkin. The launch will be at Pizza Express Dean Street on Monday 23 May. ‘drifter days’ was recorded after a nineteen-date tour of venues and festivals both large and small in the Czech Republic in 2019, and this interview tells the story of how that happened…

Tom was BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year Finalist 2014 and 2016, won a Peter Whittingham Award in 2018, and released his debut album ‘Gecko’ last year on Basho Records. He has been lauded as a rising talent on the London jazz scene, working with artists such as Maria Schneider, Gareth Lockrane, Jim Mullen, the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra and Alex Garnett. Interview by Sebastian Scotney:

Tom Smith in Prague. Photo by Alexey Norkin

LondonJazz News: How did ‘Drifter Days’ come about?

Tom Smith: Back in April 2017 I received a random email through my website from a Czech music promoter Jiří Švéda asking if I had any plans for 2019. At this point I was still at music college learning my scales, and 2 years seemed an absolute lifetime away, so I told him ‘Sure!’… Jiří was proposing that I come over to the Czech Republic for a week-long tour in April 2019 with a local rhythm section. This seemed very unreal to me as I had never released any music at this point, all I had to my name were the recordings from the BBC Young Jazz Musician programmes, so I just told him I was interested, made a note of the dates in my diary and then carried on life as normal.

2019 rolls around and having completely forgotten the tour for nearly two years, I suddenly realise I needed to start planning. I fired Jiří a quick email to see if it was still happening – not only was it still going ahead, the pianist I was going to be playing with (Daniel Bulatkin) had managed to book an extra 2 weeks of performance dates, so now we were going to be touring for 19 consecutive dates! We chat and we decide that after 19 dates of touring the band will certainly be sounding incredibly tight, so we ought to spend a couple of days in the studio at the end recording the music to release an album – do bear in mind at this point I hadn’t met Daniel or the rest of the trio. April rolls around and I board the plane the Prague with no idea what to expect.

LJN: The name of Daniel Bulatkin may be unfamiliar…

TS: Daniel is an incredible young pianist from Prague, I couldn’t quite believe his gig schedule when I looked at his website. He is constantly gigging with his own projects all around the country, and he had many tours booked in with major European talents like Gary Husband, Tineke Postma and Per Mathisen – all while completing his degree.

When I turned up in Prague, Dan introduced me to the other members of his trio; Petr Nohavica on drums and Max Makagonov on bass. They had been performing together for a long while already, so I knew I was in safe hands. What a lovely group of people, everyone was so easy to get along with, it was a real pleasure

LJN: What were the venues/audiences/vibes like? Any highlights?

TS: The tour took us all over the Czech Republic. We started and ended in Prague, with gigs in cities like Brno, Ostrava, Karlovy Vary and Trutnov. Every venue was completely different, from raucous basement bars on Saturday nights where we went all out with our bluesy material to formal concert stages where we had to hastily iron our suits in the back room and present our most eloquent chamber material. We had a pad of around 20 songs, and the most fun part of the tour was working out different ways of playing the music to suit the different venues.

Highlight gigs for me were the Jazzinec Festival in Trutnov and the Jazz Dock in Prague. The audiences were incredibly warm and receptive, I was amazed how well everyone understood English, I was able to talk completely naturally on stage in English, they even laughed at my jokes (I promise!)

With the quartet in Prague. Photo credit: Alexey Norkin

LJN: What were the roles of the band on tour? Did you find common interests?

TS: Daniel took on the unenviable task of driving the band around the country, we all somehow managed to fit everyone into one car, including a full drum kit, double bass, everyone’s suitcases and Dan’s Fender Rhodes. Packing and unpacking the car every day became a military precision operation…3 weeks was a perfect amount of time to get to know each other really well, we talked about all of our different interests and lives, I learned a lot about Czech culture – and especially the food and drink there. We ate (and drank) like kings, although I was craving green vegetables by the end of the tour, they don’t seem to be a thing in Czech Republic.

LJN: What is the story of the album recording?

TS: We had two days booked in the studio, and we decided for the second day to expand the arrangements of some of the songs so we could play with some special guests from Prague – Miroslav Hloucal on trumpet, Cyrille Oswald on tenor sax, and UK’s own Andy Scofield who now lives in Prague.

We ended up recording so much music that we found it impossible to cut down to just one album, so we had to release a double album. CD 1 is all about the vibe of the quartet on tour, and CD 2 allows us to show off some of the other extraordinary talent of the musicians from Prague. The compositions are mostly my own, but there’s also songs by Dan, Petr and Andy.

‘Drifter Days’ is one of my pieces, and we picked it as the name of the album because the title came to represent the quite surreal and magical experience of touring the beautiful country of Czech Republic without a care in the world. People who have heard my first album ‘Gecko’ will recognise my composition Curiosity which appears on both albums, but the feel on this version is very different

LJN: What do you feel you have learned from this extraordinary experience?

TS: I had a completely unique experience on this tour, not something I can see happening again for many years, and I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity. Working with completely new musicians who all come from totally different backgrounds and finding ways to play together is the greatest thing about jazz music. It’s something every musician should do, try to book a concert abroad, and play with a band of local musicians, you will learn so much. Oh and I also found out I love Czech Pilsner and dumplings.

LINKS: Bookings for album launch on 23 May at Pizza Express Soho,

John Fordham’s 2020 LJN feature about Tom Smith

The double album ‘Drifter Days’ (on  Lukáš Oravec Records) can be bought online at Bandcamp.

Note: There will be physical copies available at the launch gig, and will be sold online at a future date. The album will not be on Spotify in its entirety, only the singles.

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