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23 February 2021
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This year, as part of our celebration of poet, playwright and jazz musician Tom McGrath, EIFF is proud to present Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Electric Contact: A Jazz Tribute to Tom McGrath, featuring actor Tam Dean Burn, (Fortitude, War Horse, Local Hero). Here, EIFF Senior Programmer Niall Greig Fulton takes a closer look at the incredible journey of the man graciously orchestrating the musical side of this special event: master saxophonist and internationally recognised Scottish jazz ambassador, Tommy Smith.
"Of the generation which emerged in the mid-80s, he might be the most outstandingly talented"
- Richard Cook on Tommy Smith, Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia
Born in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh in 1967, Tommy Smith is a phenomenon. One of the finest jazz musicians of his generation, Smith’s prolific career began with his first album, Giant Strides (1983), when he was only sixteen. This recording earned him a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. There he formed the group Forward Motion with bassist Terje Gewelt, drummer Ian Froman and pianist Laszlo Gardony; and together they recorded two albums, The Berklee Tapes (1985), and Progressions (1988). Next, thanks to a recommendation by legendary jazz-fusion pianist Chick Corea, Smith was invited to join Berklee Vice-President Gary Burton’s band alongside pianist Makoto Ozone and bass guitarist Steve Swallow. As part of this quintet, Smith would tour the world for the first time and play on the album Whiz Kids (1987).
"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, Coltrane-like sound and his bristling lines contrast nicely with the smooth symmetrical shapes that typify Burton and Ozone`s solo work. And, equally important, Smith seems to have his own story to tell.”
- Larry Kart on the Gary Burton Quintet, Chicago Tribune
In 1989, at the age of twenty-two, Smith signed to the world famous Blue Note Records. With John Scofield on guitar, Eddie Gómez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Gary Burton overseeing proceedings, Smith recorded his first of four albums for the label, Step by Step (1989). This was followed by Peeping Tom (1990), Standards (1991), and Paris (1992). During this era Smith would also record and tour with Scottish pop sensations Hue and Cry, vibraphonist Joe Locke and percussionist Trilok Gurtu; and present Jazz Types, a six-part BBC series featuring performances by some of the most important jazz musicians of the day. In addition to these engagements, Smith also began to study classical composition, leading to his first saxophone concerto, Unirsi in Matrimonio (1990), and a suite for saxophone and strings, Un Écossais À Paris (1991).
“The movements work as mood pictures, full of atmosphere and outbursts of drama”.
- Michael Tumelty on Tommy Smith’s Unirsi In Matrimonio, Glasgow Herald
1993 saw Smith sign up with Scottish label Linn Records, for whom he would record seven highly acclaimed albums: Reminiscence (1993), with Gewelt and Froman from his old Berklee band Forward Motion; Misty Morning and No Time (1994), inspired by the poems of Norman McCaig; Azure (1995); Beasts of Scotland (1996), inspired by the poems of Glasgow's inaugural poet laureate and future Scots Makar, (national poet for Scotland), Edwin Morgan; The Sound Of Love - The Ballads of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (1998); Gymnopédie - The Classical Side of Tommy Smith (1998), featuring Smith's Sonatas No. 1: Hall of Mirrors and No. 2: Dreaming With Open Eyes; and Bluesmith (1999). Smith also produced The Music of the Night for Linn in 1998, featuring his uncle, singer Jeff Leyton (who sang the lead role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in London for fourteen years), and the City of London Philharmonic.
“Smith's artful writing makes the ensemble sound like a petite Philharmonic."
- Neil Tesser on Tommy Smith’s Beasts of Scotland, Playboy Magazine
In 1995, during his time on Linn, Smith established the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. Initially receiving no institutional support, Smith single-handedly ensured the development of the venture until proper funding was finally secured.
“Since its birth in 1995, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra has steadily matured into a big band fit to grace any stage in the world, regularly featuring international jazz stars as guests.”
- John Fordham, The Guardian
Having first collaborated on Beasts of Scotland in 1996, 1997 saw Smith reconvene with the great Edwin Morgan for Planet Wave, a major project commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival for which Smith brought music to a sequence of Morgan’s poems addressing the subject of time. In 1998, after premiering Hiroshima, his third Saxophone concerto, Smith would join forces with Morgan again, alongside Jeff Leyton and the Paragon Ensemble, for Monte Cristo, a musical based on the work of Alexander Dumas performed at the Traverse Theatre. Smith’s relationship with the Traverse would continue that same year with him writing the music for their production of David Harrower’s Kill the Old, Torture the Young, for which he would also teach actor Billy Boyd, (star of the Lord of the Rings trilogy), how to play guitar. Before the year was out, in recognition of his extraordinary artistic achievements, Smith would also become the youngest-ever recipient of an honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
As the nineties came to an end Smith made his first foray into the world of cinema, contributing soprano saxophone to the soundtrack of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), before the dawn of the new millennium saw him announced as one of the first fourteen recipients of the Scottish Arts Council’s Creative Scotland Awards. This award allowed Smith to fulfil his ambition to perform the atmospheric Alone at Last, a solo concert programme employing tenor and soprano saxophones, high-tech equipment, (harmonizer, loop machine and surround-sound), more of Morgan’s poetry, natural sounds and special effects. This innovative show was then toured around 48 venues over the USA, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK. Somehow, Smith also found the time and energy that year to premiere another large-scale composition at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival. Sons and Daughters of Alba was an imaginative blend of Scottish folk music and poetry, the text provided once again by Edwin Morgan, with whom, by then, Smith had developed a unique artistic relationship. Further impressive accomplishments in 2000 included becoming an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland; providing tenor saxophone excerpts for the screen adaptation of Iain Banks’ Complicity; establishing his own record label, Spartacus; and writing The Morning of the Imminent with Morgan for Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth.
“I was commissioned to write a millennium suite for Cleo Laine. She wanted a ten minute piece for her concert at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts—a tribute to the millennium. She gave me some books of poetry to look over. I couldn't find anything that I felt was appropriate. So I told her that I had a friend who was a great poet. I sent her some of Edwin's poems and she wanted him to do it.”
- Tommy Smith on Dame Cleo Laine and Edwin Morgan
In 2001, having released his first album, also called Spartacus, on his own imprint, Smith participated in a series of televised jazz concerts in Switzerland; presented his extended composition Beauty and the Beast, written for saxophonist David Liebman and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra; toured in a quintet with Liebman; and played as a solo saxophonist in Sally Beamish's oratorio The Knotgrass Elegy, commissioned by the BBC Proms and performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Sir Andrew Davis.
“The saxophonist Tommy Smith, holding all together with his eloquent wizardry, brought the piece to a wistful close with a forlorn meditation.”
- Fiona Maddocks on Sally Beamish’s The Knotgrass Elegy, The Guardian
Smith founded the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2002. This would provide not only a unique educational opportunity for the country's best up-and-coming jazz musicians, but a direct source of talent from which the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra could recruit new members.
“Tommy Smith set up (and funded) this orchestra to encourage the cream of Scotland’s emerging jazz talent to flourish, and it is clearly working.”
Kenny Mathieson on the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra, The List
Written for saxophone, bass, drums and a hundred-piece symphony orchestra, Smith premiered Edinburgh, his commission for the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra's 40th anniversary, in 2003. Recording and touring with Joe Locke & 4 Walls of Freedom the following year, he then formed a duo with bassist Arlid Andersen in 2005 that subsequently evolved into one of the finest jazz trios in Europe with the addition of drummer Paolo Vinaccia. 2006 saw the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra perform Smith’s expanded arrangement of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, and 2008 marked the release of Smith, Andersen and Vinaccia’s critically acclaimed debut album, Live at Belleville.
“...their superb Live at Belleville album – just out on ECM, and my jazz album of the year – only confirms that this is a must-see band.”
- Kenny Mathieson on Smith, Andersen and Vinaccia, The List
Smith was awarded a second honorary doctorate by Glasgow Caledonian University in 2008 and in 2009 he was appointed as the inaugural head of the first ever full-time jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. The Conservatoire also bestowed a professorship upon Smith in 2010 and three years later, in 2013, he received his third doctorate courtesy of Edinburgh University in the company of fellow recipients Lord Puttnam, rugby star Scott Hastings, founder of The Big Issue Scotland Mel Young, and Chair of CBI Scotland Nosheena Mobarik.
- Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus
Since its inception, Spartacus Records has gone from strength to strength, creating a valuable catalogue of not only Smith’s extraordinary work, but that of his many talented protégés. Releases include Smith’s own projects: Into Silence (2001), Alone At Last (2002), Forbidden Fruit (2003), Evolution (2005), and Karma (2011); his collaborations with pianist Brian Kellock: Bezique (2003), Symbiosis (2004), and Whispering of the Stars (2014); the almost complete discography of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra: Miles Ahead (2002), Rhapsody in Blue (2009), Torah (2010), In the Spirit of Duke (2013), American Adventure (2014), Culloden Moor Suite (2014), Jeunehomme (2015), and Beauty and the Beast (2016); and three albums by the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra: Exploration (2008), Emergence (2012) and Effervescence (2017).
“Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith has turned his country's national jazz orchestra into a world-class outfit...”
- John Fordham, The Guardian
Having released Mira, his second album with Andersen and Vinaccia, in 2014, and his own Modern Jacobite featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2016, Smith shows no signs of slowing down. Maintaining his ever-busy live schedule, and continuing to boldly experiment with the style and composition of his music, he also remains selflessly dedicated to the advancement of his art-form domestically. With the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra now regarded as Europe’s foremost contemporary big band, and the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra flourishing, Smith, still artistic director of both, will clearly be recognised for generations to come as the boy from Wester Hailes with the saxophone who became the man that changed the face of jazz in Scotland forever.
A BBC documentary from 1988 capturing Smith at the outset of his extraordinary career
Smith in performance with Edwin Morgan at the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival 1997
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