Tommy Smith is a leading light in European jazz, first and foremost as one of the finest saxophonists of his generation, and latterly as the founder/director of The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. These career defining achievements are consolidated by his track record as an international recording artist; a composer and arranger of extraordinary ambition; a respected group leader and generous sideman; and not least, as a jazz educator. Perhaps above all these things he is an unstinting advocate and emissary for jazz, a fact that has been recognised by the most prestigious educational institutions in his home country of Scotland and beyond.
Tommy was born in Edinburgh on April 27th 1967 to a Scottish mother, Brenda Ann Urquhart and William John Ellis, a father whom he never met. Smith was brought up in the challenging environs of Pilton, Broomhouse and Wester Hailes; areas of the city not known as fertile ground for nurturing jazz talent. At the age of twelve, he was encouraged by his late stepfather George Smith to take up the tenor saxophone. Smith Sr. was an avid jazz fan and no mean drummer, very much in the Gene Krupa style.
Under the skilful direction of Jim O’Malley and Jean Allison of the music department at Wester Hailes Education Centre, Smith made swift progress and was soon gigging around Edinburgh and Scotland with his quartet. Tommy Smith’s special talent was self-evident from the moment he appeared on the Edinburgh jazz scene in his early teens. He recorded his first album, Giant Strides, at the age of sixteen in 1983 with a trio featuring drummer and Scottish jazz stalwart John Rae. That same year he won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Such was the belief in him, that Jean Allison, his music teacher at the time, assisted by organising an extensive fund-raising programme on his behalf.
In four short years he had recorded Giant Strides and Taking Off!, had made his way to Berklee and formed the co-operative group Forward Motion with bassist Terje Gewelt, drummer Ian Froman and pianist Laszlo Gardonyi. This group remained active with varying personnel until 1994 and recorded two albums, Progressions and The Berklee Tapes, both released on HEP Records. During his time in New York he also played with similarly gifted instrumentalists Jaco Pastorius, Rashied Ali and Mike Stern.
At eighteen, and on the recommendation of Chick Corea, Smith joined Berklee vice president Gary Burton’s group, alongside bassist Steve Swallow, pianist Makoto Ozone and drummer Adam Nussbaum. Together, they toured the world, recording the Whiz Kids album for ECM Records and catching the attention of critics such as Larry Kart of the Chicago Tribune who opined: “The key addition is Tommy Smith, who, if memory serves, is only the second saxophonist Gary Burton has employed in his twenty-odd years as a leader. Smith’s angular, bristling lines suggest he has his own story to tell.”
This impressive opening chapter is only the beginning of a much longer story. In 1989, the twenty-two year old Smith signed to the iconic jazz label Blue Note Records. His first outing for them, Step by Step, was recorded with guidance from producer Gary Burton and featured Smith leading a band composed of jazz luminaries John Scofield (guitar), Eddie Gomez (Bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). His Blue Note debut catapulted Smith to the attention of an international audience and marked his arrival as mature contender.
Three further albums followed for Blue Note. Peeping Tom (1990), Standards (1991) and Paris (1992) all served to amplify Smith’s work ethic and dedication to his craft. During this period Smith also hosted a series of BBC TV specials called Jazz Types in which he played with astonishingly diverse guest such as pianists Tommy Flanagan and Chick Corea; alto saxophonist Bobby Watson; bassist Arild Andersen; his old boss Gary Burton; pop/soul group Hue & Cry, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He also recorded and toured in that time frame with, among others, Hue & Cry, the American vibist Joe Locke, percussionist Trilok Gurtu and Arild Andersen.
In addition to his jazz-based commitments, Smith also enjoyed a two-year sojourn in Paris where he studied classical music and worked with Daniel Humair. This led to Tommy Smith’s first saxophone concerto, Unirsi In Matrimonio, and a suite for saxophone and strings, Un Ecossais A Paris. These works were followed by Sonata No. 1 – Hall of Mirrors; and Sonata No. 2 – Dreaming with Open Eyes. The latter is regularly played by the saxophonist Gerard McChrystal and virtuoso pianist Murray McLachlan.
In 1993, Smith joined Scottish label Linn Records for whom he recorded Reminiscence (1993), Misty Morning and No Time (1994), Azure (1995) and the hugely ambitious Beasts of Scotland (1996). All of these albums received audience approval and critical acclaim. Neil Tesser writing in Playboy magazine noted of Beasts of Scotland that: “Smith’s artful writing makes the ensemble sound like a petite Philharmonic.” Reviewer Chris J. Walker, in the Los Angeles Jazz magazine, remarked that Smith’s strong compositional talent “vividly conveys the aura of the various wildlife that his compositions are named for.”
Next came The Sound of Love (1997), recorded in only six hours in New York City with the outstanding rhythm section of Kenny Barron (piano), Peter Washington (bass), and Billy Drummond (drums). The album focused on the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn songbook in a superb set of readings of classics by two of the foremost composers in jazz history. The album reached number 20 in the American Gavin Jazz Chart, an astounding achievement for a European jazz musician.
1998 saw the release of Gymnopedie: The Classical Side of Tommy Smith and it highlighted a completely different facet of Smith’s musical vocabulary. It was recorded with his regular duo partner, classical pianist Murray McLachlan and featured Smith’s Sonatas No. 1 and No. 2 and music by Satie, Bartok, Grieg, and Chick Corea.
In May of that year, Smith premiered his third saxophone concerto, Hiroshima, with the Orchestra of St. John Smith’s Square at Chelmsford Cathedral. Other projects included producing singer Jeff Leyton’s debut album with the City of London Philharmonic. Leyton, who is also Smith’s uncle, most notably sang the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in London for fourteen years. Leyton also featured on Monte Cristo, the saxophonist’s commission for the combined forces of the Paragon Ensemble and his own sextet. The work featured text by poet Edwin Morgan and was first performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in September 1998, before going on to tour other Scottish cities.
Tommy Smith returned to jazz and to New York the following year to record his final album for Linn, the tough and gritty Blue Smith (1999). He was assisted by his old friend, the much-admired guitarist John Scofield, and the familiar rhythm team of bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn.
Smith’s extraordinary creativity continued uninterrupted and, if anything, diversified even further. In addition to maintaining a busy international performing schedule, he also wrote the music for a play, Kill The Old, Torture The Young, an Edinburgh Traverse Theatre production featuring actor Billy Boyd. He also contributed tenor and soprano saxophone excerpts respectively to the movies Complicity and The Talented Mr Ripley.
However, July 14th 1999 marked a memorable red-letter day for Smith. In recognition of his many artistic achievements, Tommy Smith became the youngest-ever recipient of an honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in his hometown of Edinburgh.
On Burns Night, January 25th 2000, Smith was announced as one of the first fourteen recipients of the Scottish Arts Council’s Creative Scotland Awards. The award helped to fulfil his ambition to perform Alone At Last, a solo concert programme using tenor and soprano saxophones, high-tech equipment, poetry, natural sounds and special effects. He toured extensively with the project performing over 40 concerts throughout Scotland and beyond. On May 4th 2000, he became Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and won the Best Tenor Saxophonist title at the British Jazz Awards in May 2002.
In July 2000 he premiered another large-scale composition, Sons and Daughters of Alba, this time at Glasgow International Jazz Festival. It was an artistically daring work that incorporated Scottish folk music with contributions from traditional musicians Donald Shaw & Karen Matheson as well as poetry by Edwin Morgan.
In September 2000, determined to take full control of his recorded output, Smith established his own recording company, Spartacus Records. The first album on the new label, also called Spartacus, was released in February 2001. It was made in New York to the highest technical and artistic standards and featured Smith reunited once more with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn. That was quickly followed by a solo album, Into Silence, recorded in the spiritually inspiring Hamilton Mausoleum on October 30th 2001. The year closed out on a seasonal note with a recording by Smith’s quartet of ten specially arranged Christmas songs.
Subsequent Spartacus releases included Evolution, featuring Smith’s all-star sextet with Joe Lovano, John Scofield, John Taylor, John Patitucci and Bill Stewart; two duo recordings, Bezique and Symbiosis, with BBC Jazz Awards-winning pianist Brian Kellock; Miles Ahead with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and guest soloist, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen; Smith’s solo project Alone At Last; and Forbidden Fruit by Smith’s all-Scottish quartet.
In April 2001, he was invited to take part in televised concerts in Switzerland alongside Benny Golson, Vincent Herring, Carl Allen, Buster Williams, Victor Lewis, Buster Cooper, and Randy Brecker. In July that year, he premiered his extended composition, Beauty and the Beast, specially written for saxophonist David Liebman and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Smith also took advantage of a remarkable opportunity that year to tour in a quintet with Liebman.
Tommy Smith also appeared as solo saxophonist in Sally Beamish’s The Knotgrass Elegy, commissioned by the BBC Proms and performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London in July 2001. Other classical music endeavours have included the largest known work for the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra’s 40th anniversary. Written for saxophone, bass and drums plus a one hundred-strong symphony orchestra and entitled Edinburgh, it was premiered on April 12th 2003 at the Edinburgh Usher Hall before touring Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Finland.
Besides these personal accomplishments, Smith recognised that Scotland was producing an outstanding crop of young jazz musicians. He had already invested a great deal of time and energy during the mid-1990’s establishing the now-treasured Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Nevertheless, in 2002, Smith re-affirmed his commitment to the future of jazz in Scotland by forming the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra.
Not content with that, he financed rehearsals and travelling expenses for talented teenage players from across the country out of his own pocket and established a charitable foundation in his own name. Since then, the youth orchestra has performed at jazz festivals throughout Scotland and launched its first CD Exploration (2008) featuring special guest Joe Locke. Their second recording, Emergence, was released in 2012. Six out of six of the last Young Scottish Jazz Musicians of Year have come from the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra.
In 2005, Tommy Smith reunited with Joe Locke to record the album Sirocco and toured extensively with the vibist’s group Four Walls of Freedom. Smith also formed a duo with another long-time colleague, the Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, later adding drummer Paolo Vinaccia to an ensemble that developed into one of Europe’s leading jazz trios. The group has enjoyed a busy concert itinerary and their debut album Live at Belleville (ECM 2008) received numerous album of the year nominations in the press worldwide. Their second release is due out on ECM later in 2013. Yet another saxophone and piano pairing, this time with Swede Jacob Karlzon, has featured at jazz festivals in Edinburgh, Islay and Fife to an enthusiastic response from audiences everywhere.
In 2012, Tommy Smith created Karma, a brand new quartet with drummer Alyn Cosker, keyboard artist Steve Hamilton and bassist Kevin Glasgow. Their eponymous debut CD was released to rave reviews and scooped the prize for best album of 2012 at the Scottish Jazz Awards: “His tone is tungsten-tough or tender and nostalgic, his improvisations stimulating and affecting.” – BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE ★★★★★, “His toughest and most creative quartet yet.” – SCOTSMAN ★★★★★
Tommy Smith and The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra
In 1995, in the midst of a busy schedule consisting of touring, writing and recording, Smith found the time and energy to launch The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and he remains its artistic director. The SNJO has presented programmes of both repertory classics and more contemporary works, many of them specially commissioned.
The repertory programmes have included Duke Ellington’s extended suites, celebrations of Count Basie and Benny Goodman (with special guest Ken Peplowski) and the collaborations between Miles Davis and Gil Evans: Porgy & Bess (with Gunther Schuller), Sketches of Spain (both with Gerard Presencer as trumpet soloist) and Miles Ahead (with Ingrid Jensen and Paolo Fresu).
The SNJO has also presented the music of Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Benny Carter, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Ray Charles, Joe Williams (with singer Tam white), Monk and Steely Dan. Moreover, this is an orchestra that is diverse in its output and eclectic in its approach. It has taken on the music of Astor Piazzolla and Pat Metheny featuring the guitarist talents of Jim Mullen, Phil Robson, Mike Walker and Kevin MacKenzie, and premiered special commissions by Keith Tippett, Florian Ross, and Geoffrey Keezer.
Under Smith’s thoughtful direction they have presented specially commissioned arrangements of John Coltrane, Chick Corea (with drummer Gary Novak), and Wayne Shorter featuring Gary Burton and Branford Marsalis as soloists. The orchestra has also recorded with Kurt Elling, Mike Stern, David Liebman, Bill Evans, Clarence Penn and Joe Locke. In addition, the SNJO has delivered music by contemporary jazz creators. These include Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Sister Suite; Joe Lovano’s Celebrating Sinatra, with arrangements by the late Manny Albam; and a programme of the music of Maria Schneider, conducted by the composer.
The orchestra has also performed Tommy Smith’s own Planet Wave, an adventurous, large-scale composition that married Smith’s music to poet Edwin Morgan’s text to great effect. It was made possible by the Arts Foundation/Barclays Bank jazz composition fellowship and the concerts with Joe Lovano also featured the premiere of Smith’s acclaimed Torah; a work based on the first five books of the Bible. Torah is a piece that depicts a titanic struggle between good and evil which is vividly enacted. Written over seventy days, the fifty-minute composition was created specially for the pairing of Lovano, a phenomenal tenor saxophonist, and the big sound of the SNJO.
The same evening that Torah was being premiered in Scotland, Dame Cleo Laine and John Dankworth premiered another work by Smith and Edwin Morgan, The Morning of the Imminent, at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Also in 2008, the SNJO presented Pino Jodice’s Jazz Toons project featuring the voice of Maureen McMullan. In 2010, Smith’s collaboration with the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers produced World of the Gods, a suite based on Japanese folk songs which was a major hit and toured all around the UK.
As well as three duo albums, Tommy Smith’s special partnership with Scots pianist Brian Kellock resulted in Smith creating an expanded jazz arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and a programme of Ellington’s music In the Spirit of Duke for the SNJO with Kellock as the featured soloist. Rhapsody was premiered to huge acclaim when it opened the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Friday July 28, 2006. A popular recording was later released in May 2009. In the Spirit of Duke was toured in Autumn 2012 and a live CD of the same name was released in 2013. This coincided with a triumphant tour of North America and a rampant headline show at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The SNJO has also provided a platform for jazz musicians and composers based in Scotland to write for a big band in concerts devoted to suites comprising of contributions by orchestra members and external contributors alike. These include The Solar Suite, Great Scots Suite and The Edinburgh Suite.
The SNJO undoubtedly thrives on his unswerving commitment and boundless energy, but Tommy Smith has continued throughout to maintain a hectic personal work schedule. In recent years he has toured in France, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, North America, Switzerland, Azerbaijan, Malta, Bratislava, Romania, Ireland, Faroes, Austria, Hong Kong, China, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Israel, Tunisia, Romania, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Panama, Canada, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Italy, Belgium, Sicily, Iceland, Netherlands, India, Pakistan, Czech Republic, Egypt and Sri Lanka as well as in the UK.
Tommy Smith remains full of creative ideas and he has consistently received recognition at virtually every point in his career; namely three British Jazz Awards (1989, 1996 & 2002); BBC Heart of Jazz Award – Best Woodwind; Scottish Jazz Awards – Best Big Band (2008); an honorary doctorate from Caledonian University in Glasgow; The Scottish Jazz Expo Award (2009); Lord Provost Music Award (2009); a professorship from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (2010); five Scottish Jazz Awards for Woodwind (2009); Educator (2011, 2012); Best album ‘KARMA’ (2012) and Big Band (2009, 2011). In 2013 he received an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University for services to jazz in Scotland.
His tireless work in jazz education began when he wrote the curriculum for the short-lived National Jazz Institute (1995-1998) and continued through teaching promising individual students. His continuing campaign for a jazz presence in Scottish further education was rewarded when in October 2009 the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow appointed Smith inaugural head of the newly formed jazz department. In this, as in every area of his artistic endeavours, Smith promises resolute support and looks forward to sending fully prepared graduates upon the path of the professional jazz musician. It’s a road that he has travelled with much distinction since taking those early, youthful Giant Strides.
It is clear that Tommy Smith is going to continue creating music of lasting value. His journey across more than two decades is packed with original and inspiring music. It has demonstrated conclusively that his is a singular musical voice, and one that still has much to say.
“One of the important voices in the tenor players of today.” – JACK DEJOHNETTE
“Tommy has a unique sound and approach.” – CHICK COREA
“The most talented sax star to arrive on the world scene in years.” – GARY BURTON
“Tommy is an incredible writer and a great, great player.” – JOHN SCOFIELD
“Tommy Smith is one of the best musicians around.” DAVID LIMBER