Fraser Smith Quartet. New album ‘Tip Top!’ (Ubuntu Music)

Fraser Smith says of bebop music: “I just love listening to that style, and playing with people who love it too. And I think the more you get into it, the more you learn about how to make those wonderful old sounds come alive again for a modern audience.”

The Birmingham-born, Welsh-raised and now London-based saxophonist has a new album on Ubuntu Music. Release date 21 April. Launch gig 18 April at Pizza Express Jazz Club. Feature by John Fordham.

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Fraser Smith. Photo credit: Benthe de Vries

When Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker’s genius first blazed across jazz’s night sky in the 1940s, it was a visitation that had a seismic impact on the era’s adventurous musicians and fans alike. The bebop revolution Parker set loose has since passed through countless changes down the decades, in the hands of many descendants and disciples, but the audacity and passion of his vision continues to mesmerise emerging jazz players all over the world. 

   This month in the UK, the young Birmingham-born, Welsh-raised and now London-based saxophonist Fraser Smith confirms that the legacy vividly lives on, when he launches his nonchalantly confident and very hard-swinging debut album, “Tip Top!” But though he plays a tenor saxophone and not Bird’s favoured alto, and his heroes include such soulfully muscular Bird-inspired tenor-beboppers as Dexter Gordon, Ike Quebec, and Stanley Turrentine, Parker’s phrasing and timing unmistakeably guide Smith’s melodic sense and lie at the core of his playing. 

 Before the saxophonist and I talk on the phone for LJN, I find an old Parker-related memory is on my mind – of an interview I’d had with the late Ronnie Scott in 1985, in which the celebrated club-proprietor – a poll-winning tenor saxophonist himself – was recalling a Sunday afternoon in a Bloomsbury flat in 1947 when he had first encountered Charlie Parker’s searing sound. 

   Scott and a group of jazz-playing friends – all in their restless 20s and bored with the commercial swing and dance-band scene on which they were making their livings – to some newly-imported American records. One turned out to be ‘Red Cross’, a hastily-composed tune written to fill out an incomplete recording session by the guitarist Tiny Grimes, and – like much bebop music of the period – it was a harmony-expanding recharge of a 1930s pop hit, ‘I Got Rhythm’. But the real attraction was the horn-player on the session – a 26 year-old Charlie Parker, flying over the stacked chords faster and more ingeniously than any saxophonist the young Brits had ever heard before. 

 From that moment on, for Ronnie Scott and his jazz generation, Parker’s uninhibited harmonic conception and audacious updating of the blues became, as Scott would later put it, ‘the obvious way to play’. 

 As it still seems to be, 76 years later in London, for Fraser Smith, who’s tirelessly finding new avenues in that inexhaustible resource. ‘I’m working on this pattern from a Charlie Parker tune called ‘Diverse’ at the moment – it’s one of his that perhaps isn’t so well-known,’ Smith tells me when we eventually hook up. ‘I’ve been playing it for about seven months now, just trying to get to the essence of it, and work it in to my playing and into different tunes more widely – but it still doesn’t feel like it’s done yet, you know. For the past eight years or so, I’ve spent hours and hours playing along with all those great records, trying to get into the details, and I’m constantly discovering new jazz that I didn’t know about from this era. Last week I found that Fats Navarro album, Nostalgia – I’d never heard it before. And so that’s another six months of listening, for all the influences that went into it.’  

Album Cover

You might never guess how focused and intense Smith’s meticulous studies are on a passing listen to the relaxed and freewheeling ‘Tip Top!’. His gruff tenor sound and punchy accents on the infectiously grooving opener ‘Might Not’ cruises with such eager aplomb over the laid-back drums groove of Steve Brown (a British bebop maestro since the 1990s) that an old-school jazzer might imagine this is an undiscovered American classic they missed 60 years ago, while the young club audiences dancing to the Smith quartet today might conversely hear it as just another seductive component of the kaleidoscope of contemporary music. 

The flying double-time bebop of ‘Iroquois’ (a nod to the classic bebop vehicle ‘Cherokee’, with Simon Read‘s thundering bass-walk powering it) is just as evocative, while the medium-swinging and ruggedly lyrical title track is infused with the enthusiasm these players express for a style conceived long before they were born. The only cover is ‘Prisoner of Love’ (a dreamy 1930s ballad reprised in the 1940s and ’60s by Perry Como and James Brown) delivered by Smith as a vaporous Ben Websteresque reverie; while the funky ‘Pip’ is a showcase for Smith’s harmonically serpentine yet always accessible melody-writing and Rob Barron’s piano-improv fluency. ‘Wardell’ is an elegantly affectionate tribute to Count Basie tenor star Wardell Gray, and the stop-time finale ‘Out Into The Daylight’ takes this fine album out on a classically garrulous phrase-swapping exchange with Brown’s vivacious drumming. 

 Fraser Smith came relatively late to the saxophone, but was studying it formally in his mid-teens, after he moved with his father from Birmingham to Wales. His introduction to jazz, however, was his own choice – mostly acquired from the budget-priced jazz compilations at the local HMV store. He considers that an Ike Quebec album acquired that way became one of his biggest early influences. Smith studied jazz at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (with sophisticated bebop alto saxist Geoff Simkins as an influential teacher), and then from 2010 on the postgraduate course at Trinity Laban in London. 

‘Going to Trinity was a real shock,’ Smith recalls. ‘All the practice rooms there are facing out into this big courtyard, so you can hear everybody going for it, fantastic techniques, and when you first encounter it it’s a real gamechanger. They definitely weren’t messing around at Trinity, and it upped my game a lot. I was already in a band that had formed in Wales around 2008, with Joe Webb on Hammond organ – he’s a very sought-after pianist now – and Gethin Jones on drums, and we all moved up to London together and kept it going, playing a kind of Ike Quebec-inspired soul-jazz, until just before the pandemic, when different projects took us separate ways. From then on, I’ve found myself getting more and more into classic bebop and swing grooves – looking at the micro and the macro, sometimes on a single phrase for months, sometimes playing along with a song and really trying to get inside the feel of it.’

Recording session. L-R: Steve Brown, Rob Barron, Simon Read, Fraser Smith_Photo credit: Leo Mansell)

Fraser Smith unhesitatingly credits his partners on “Tip Top!” – pianist Rob Barron, bassist Simon Read, and drummer Steve Brown – with giving those meticulous pursuits such a vibrant charge of their own kinds of musicality.  

    ‘I’ve looked up to Rob and Steve for a long time,’ Smith unhesitatingly declares, ‘from before I moved to London. When we were in Cardiff we used to drive down to the Ronnie Scott’s jam on a Wednesday night, when the singer Mike Mwenso was running it – and they were crazy sessions, went on till four or five in the morning. I remember Mike telling people to stop dancing so erratically, because they were accidentally knocking people’s saxophones out of their mouths and stuff. We’d hear great players like Rob and Steve then, but I never imagined I’d work my way up to be able to their level, which is why it’s been such a treat to have them with me on this album. ‘

    The young Scottish pianist Fraser Urquhart, a keen admirer of Smith’s work, has rightly written that while ‘he doesn’t reinvent the wheel and doesn’t want to’, he’s a jazz original in his own way, a young man of ‘passion, humour and will-to-live which you’ll hear on this recording’. But before we part, I ask Smith whether he envisages the soundworld he inhabits so wholeheartedly now will always be enough for him, or whether the plethora of sounds and influences that make up contemporary music of all kinds might offer their own kinds of temptations one day? 

 ‘Maybe to my detriment, I’m a bit of a purist now,’ Fraser Smith reflects. ‘I am interested in other musics, and I think other influences do come into my playing sometimes, but at the moment my listening is generally a strict bebop diet. It could be a phase, but it feels like a long one. I just love listening to that style, and playing with people who love it too. And I think the more you get into it, the more you learn about how to make those wonderful old sounds come alive again for a modern audience.’

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Fraser Smith’s ‘Tip Top!’ is released on 21 April on Ubuntu Music (UBU119). Album launch is on 18 April at the Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, London

LINKS: Fraser Smith website

Pizza Express Bookings

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