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Tommy Smith Group: Forbidden Fruit

John Kelman By

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You have to respect an artist who turns his back on the possibility of significant US exposure and returns home to his country of origin instead to give back some of what he received growing up. Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith spent a decade in the US, studying at Boston's Berklee School of Music in the early '80s, joining Gary Burton's quintet for Whiz Kids (the vibraphonist's final ECM date), and recording a series of albums for Blue Note from '88 through '92. With all the attention, one would think that he'd stay in the US and leverage himself into a greater position of prominence.

Wrong. Smith, instead, returned to Scotland, becoming director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and creating the curriculum for Glasgow's National Jazz Institute. He's released a series of records exploring a diversity of musical concerns, most on his Spartacus imprint. He's evolved a rich and complex musical personality, one that began by combining the intensity of John Coltrane filtered through Michael Brecker's contemporary edge and Jan Garbarek's icy tone.

Over the years his tone has warmed up, but he retains two of Garbarek's enduring qualities: a detailed attention to the purity of every note, and an ongoing interest in finding ways to integrate his country's own cultural milieu into the jazz landscape. And while he's better known in Europe, Smith's participation in vibraphonist Joe Locke's Four Walls of Freedom—appearing on the recent Dear Life—has generated some renewed North American interest.

Forbidden Fruit is his first album in over twenty years to include an all-Scottish lineup. Two relative newcomers, bassist Aidan O'Donnell and drummer Alyn Cosker, play with a confidence and open-mindedness that belies their youth. Pianist Steve Hamilton and Smith share some history—Hamilton was featured on Smith's '94 release Misty Morning and No Time and '96's Beasts of Scotland—but he's better known to American audiences for his work in drummer Bill Bruford's recent Earthworks group.

Forbidden Fruit is a fine summation of where Smith has been to date, reflecting an interest in longer compositional form while leaving plenty of room for exploration. Smith's relentlessly intense solo on the fifteen-minute Coltranesque opener, "Spirit of the Fallen Angel, proves him to be a true rarity: a player with plenty to say and the advanced language with which to say it. The quartet may nod to Coltrane's classic quartet, but it's anything but imitative.

"Eve, with an evocative intro from Hamilton, is lighter fare with a bright samba feel. Smith and Hamilton both take solos this time, demonstrating remarkable comfort developing across-the-bar melodies, intuitively supported by O'Donnell and Cosker. The modal "Tree of Knowledge revolves around an Irish folk tune, with Smith's note-bending and phrasing suggesting more than a passing acquaintance with Uillean Pipes.

Cohesive and with an energetic commitment to group interplay, this group is clearly just beginning. Remarkably mature and well conceived, Forbidden Fruit suggests greater things to come. Where they'll be in a year's time is anybody's guess, but the story will be well worth following.

Track Listing: Spirit of the Fallen Angel; Eve; Tree of Knowledge; Rendezvous in Utopia; One Wish; Within the Shadow; Forbidden Fruit of Fire.

Personnel: Tommy Smith: tenor and soprano saxophones; Steve Hamilton: piano; Aidan O'Donnell: bass; Alyn Cosker: drums.

Title: Forbidden Fruit | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Spartacus Records

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