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Tommy Smith: Karma

John Kelman By

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Tommy Smith is on a roll. Not that he's been on anything but for the last several years, with a string of superb albums, each as different as they are consistent in demonstrating the saxophonist's ongoing ascension as a player, writer and bandleader. But that's not all. Since returning to Scotland after graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music in the 1980s and kick-starting his career with a series of albums on Blue Note, Smith has literally reinvented Scotland's jazz scene with his Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra and Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. There's little doubt that Smith is likely to be remembered more for what he did in his home country, than for his personal and inestimable skill as a saxophonist.

And that's a shame, because over the course of the fiery quartet date, Forbidden Fruit (2005), the big band-fueled Torah (2010), and now, the absolutely boiling-over and largely electrified Karma, it's equally likely that, were Smith still living in the US, there's every chance he'd be the star there that he clearly is at home. After his career-defining performance on Torah—taking the place of Joe Lovano, for whom the suite was originally written—it's hard to imagine Smith turning the heat up even further, but he does. Combining unfailing devotion to heavy groove with mind-blowing solos, Karma hints lightly at mid-period Weather Report, but in an inspirational rather than imitative fashion.

For one, Weather Report's Wayne Shorter never played with Smith's visceral grease on the title track, which begins as a duo with drummer Alyn Cosker—combining Tower of Power-like funk with remarkably controlled multiphonics—before the group enters, and Kevin Glasgow's Mu-Tron-driven electric bass provides a booty-shaking support, while keyboardist Steve Hamilton's carefully placed synth washes shift the harmony in head-cocking fashion. For another, none of the landmark fusion supergroup's admittedly esteemed bassists would deliver a chordal solo like Glasgow's, at the start of the poignant "Star"—one of two tunes based on traditional sources—with this expansion of "Star of the County Down" sounding right at home with the Celtic leanings of Smith's equally acoustic original, "Land of Heroes," featuring a piano solo from Hamilton that builds to a high peak, and continues through Smith's thematic reiteration, before the saxophonist heads off on a soaring soprano excursion of his own.

Smith's quartet sets the bar high from the first notes of the opening "Cause and Effect," whose Middle Eastern tonality turns the melody like a whirling dervish, while the also Celtic-leaning of the modal "Body or Soul" takes its time to move from an atmospheric intro to its modal core, which burns intensely as an ostinato-driven feature for Cosker, before Smith and Hamilton engage an intense tenor/synth trade-off, one of the album's most incendiary moments.

Karma may seem less ambitious than Torah, with its large-scale arrangements, but Smith's writing pushes both his group and anyone who cares to look under its easy-on-the-ears cover. If Torah's focus was arrangement, writing and Smith's playing, the high octane Karma is clearly more of a group effort, where everyone shines throughout the album's rapidly passing sixty minutes.

Track Listing: Cause and Effect; Land of Heroes; Good Deed; Body or Soul; Tomorrow; Karma; Star; Projection; Sun; Who Are You?

Personnel: Tommy Smith: tenor and soprano saxophones, shakuhachi, synth; Steve Hamilton: piano, synth, tambourine; Kevin Glasgow: electric bass; Alyn Cosker: drums.

Title: Karma | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Spartacus Records


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