A member of vibraphonist Joe Locke's widely-acclaimed Four Walls of Freedom, Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith is finally beginning to crack a broader international market. The surprise is that it's taken this long. Since returning home from the States in the late '80s, Smith has become something of a cottage industry in the UK, creating the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, whose purview ranges from repertory classics from the likes of Charles Mingus, Count Basie and Miles Davis, to more contemporary fare from Kenny Wheeler and Joe Lovano.
Well before he began the SNJO in '95, Smith had created waves, first as a member of Gary Burton's quintet, then on a string of recordings for Blue Note around the same time that included the surprisingly mature debut Step by Step , featuring guitarist John Scofield, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Had Smith chosen to remain in the United States, there is little doubt that his signature stylebeginning as an interesting cross between the fire of Michael Brecker and the Nordic cool of Jan Garbarek but since developing into something more personalwould have garnered greater recognition. But instead he chose to return home and become his country's most visible jazz ambassador.
With over twenty recordings to his name, it's quite possible that his latest, Evolution first released on his own Spartacus label but now seeing wider distribution through Germany's ESC Recordsis his most fully realized to date. It certainly doesn't hurt to have an ensemble of deeply intuitive players including Scofield, saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist John Taylor, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Bill Stewart, who alternatively bring a vivacious sense of life to the up-tempo and swinging material and a deeper reverence for the more abstract impressionistic fare. These players are strong, including Smith himself, whose tenor playing no longer imitates his sources but is, instead, on equal footing with them. But what's even more striking about the record is the evolution of Smith's compositional skills.
Not content to stick to the traditional theme-solos-theme format, Smith composes long-form pieces that still provide plenty of space for improvisation. That Smith wrote the six compositions with these specific players in mind is evident from the first notes of "Woodstock," where Scofield's raunchy tone and bluesy disposition sets the stage for a liberally-altered New Orleans second line rhythm from Stewart, belying a more harmonically complex theme from Smith and Lovano. "Lisbon Earthquake" seems to mirror the real thing with bursts of energy featuring rich counterpoint alternating with more tranquil passages that reflect the calm between the aftershocks. As much as there is space for improvisation, it's inevitably over complex forms that clearly challenge the soloist to find the thread that runs through them.
It's a given that everyone plays to their own strengths while being challenged to stretch themselves, but with Evolution Smith has made a clear step forward with some of the most compelling charts of his careerand a group that, with but a single evening to rehearse, infuses them with sensitivity and life.
Personnel: Tommy Smith: tenor saxophone; Joe Lovano; tenor saxophone; John Scofield: guitar; John Taylor: piano; John Patitucci: bass; Bill Stewart: drums.