Composer, bandleader, tenor saxophone
When tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith returned to his native Scotland at the age of 20 after studying music in the United States, the young musician made it his mission to establish an elevated awareness of jazz in his country throughout the 1990s. By creating more opportunities for musicians to tour, arranging higher quality performances, and encouraging a younger generation to study the genre, Smith, who played both straight-ahead jazz and fusion, accomplished his desire to lessen the gap between classical music and jazz for audiences and artists across Scotland. One of Smith’s most significant contributions occurred in 1995 with his founding of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, as well as an offshoot called the Scottish Composers Jazz Ensemble. “I use the best players in the country and bring in special guests as needed,” Smith told Downbeat magazine’s Ken Franckling in October of 1999, following a spring series of Duke Ellington centennial concerts and another set of dates that featured Gil Evans and Miles Davis orchestral music.
For these performances, Smith’s ensembles played selected music from Davis’s Sketches of Spain, released in 1960, and Porgy and Bess, released in 1958. “I have never worked harder on a gig [just conducting],” said the jazz talent told Franckling, who funds his orchestras through grants and money earned at performances. “I’m always trying to find compositions to challenge the musicians. Musicians are inherently lazy in Scotland. Nobody has the time or patience. For the first two years, I did it for no money at all. Now we’re getting some remuneration at last.,”
Smith was born on April 27, 1967, in Edinburgh, Scotland, and started playing tenor saxophone while attending a school on a Scottish housing estate near the town of his birth. Recognizing Smith’s unique talent, his teachers encouraged him to develop his skills, and by the age of 15, Smith had advanced his technique enough to win acceptance to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. However, Smith’s family remained unable to fund a trip to the United States at the time. Nonetheless, after the local community initiated a massive fund-raising effort that spread to other nearby settlements, Smith accepted a position at Berklee the following year in 1984.
While attending Berklee, 18-year-old Smith took a position in a band led by master vibraphonist Gary Burton in 1986. Burton hired Smith, who was already recognized as a bold and unabashed young talent, upon the recommendation of pianist and keyboard prodigy Chick Corea, best known as one of the first to popularize jazz-rock fusion. After completing his studies at Berklee around 1988, Smith, at age 20, moved back to Scotland
Born April 27, 1967, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Education: Graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, c. 1988.
Began attending Berklee, 1984; accepted position in band led by vibraphonist Gary Burton at age 18, 1986; signed with New York’s Blue Note label, 1989; released the acclaimed album Paris for Blue Note, 1992; signed with Glasgow, Scotland’s Linn Records, 1993; released Misty Morning and No Time, which contained pieces inspired by the poetry of Norman Craig, founded the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Scottish Composers Jazz Ensemble, 1995; released Azure (inspired by artwork of Joan Miro) and Beasts of Scotland (inspired by poetry of Edwin Morgan), founded and acted as director for Scotland’s first National Jazz Institute as part of Strathclyde University in Glasgow, 1996; released The Sound of Love, a tribute to ballads of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, 1998; released Gymnopedie, which revealed Smith’s classical side, and the jazz/blues album Blue Smith; became Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University’s youngest honorary “Doctor of the University,” 1999.
Awards: Arts Foundation/Barclays Private Banking Jazz Composition Fellowship, c. 1996.
Addresses: Record company —Linn Records, Glasgow, Scotland. Website —Tommy Smith at Linn Records, http://www.linnrecords.com.
from Boston with plans of establishing himself in the British jazz scene.
In 1989, Smith signed a multi-album contract with New York’s Blue Note record label, for which he recorded his first major albums: 1990’s Burton-produced fusion/post-bop album, Peeping Tom, and 1991’s straight-ahead jazz record, Standards. During the early 1990s, Smith also released a series of jazz programs for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) which featured Corea, Burton, accompanying pianist Tommy Flanagan, double bassist Arild Andersen, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In addition, Smith released an album entitled Paris, issued in 1992, often referred to as Smith’s best project for Blue Note, and accepted commissions from the Scottish Ensemble to write his first saxophone concerto in 1990, as well as a suite for saxophone and strings in 1991.
But despite Smith’s mature, highly individual sound, Blue Note decided against extending the promising saxophonist’s contract. According to the Penguin Guide to Jazz on Compact Disc, Blue Note found it difficult to market a British jazz artist in North America. Therefore, in 1993 Smith signed with Linn Records, headquartered in Glasgow, Scotland, and released a steady flow of work for the label throughout the remainder of the 1990s. Smith’s first album for Linn, 1993’s Reminiscence, showed Smith’s ambition, evolving technique, and enthusiasm for playing with his new band, a trio composed of artists from northern lands such as Norway and his native Scotland, known as Forward Motion. Produced by the band, whose members also included bassist Terje Gewelt and drummer lan Froman (both of whom Smith met while studying at Berklee), Reminiscence earned favorable reviews and critics believed that Smith was on the verge of taking his music in a new direction. That same year, Smith, at the time the composer in residence at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival, composed work, including his Sonata No. 1 for saxophone and piano, for the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra. The composition was performed by pianist Murray McLachlan and published by London’s Camden Music.
The following year, Smith recorded his second album, Misty Morning and No Time, written for a sextet and considered his most ambitious project in terms of composition up to this point. Gewelt and Froman again provided the rhythm section, while Scottish pianist Steve Hamilton (also a graduate of Berklee), British trumpeter Guy Barker, and British saxophonist Julian Arguëlles completed the band. All of the 14 works showcased in Misty Morning and No Time, including four wholly composed ensemble pieces, were inspired by the poetry of Norman Craig, one of Scotland’s most distinguished contemporary poets. Using Craig’s words to bring forth his musical ideas, Smith shed his former label of “teenage prodigy” with pieces such as “Memorial,” an emotional tribute to Craig’s deceased daughter, and “Estuary,” a theme which opens with gentle saxophones intertwined with Barker’s monette (a cross between a trumpet and a flugelhorn) and slowly builds to a striking climax.
In 1995, Smith received another major commission, this time from the Orchestra of St. John’s Smith Square for a work entitled “Hiroshima,” which premiered in the fall of 1996. Also in 1995, Smith embarked on a European tour, performing ten new compositions inspired by one of the century’s most celebrated Surrealists, the Catalan painter, graphic artist, and sculptor Joan Miro. Smith, interested in innovative, modern art since his childhood, once considered a career in painting before he learned to play the saxophone. Released under the title Azure by Linn in 1996, the album (and concert series) was a collaborative effort that also featured Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Lars Danielsson (also a well-known keyboardist) on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums. Compositions such as the opening “The Gold of the Azure” and “The Calculation” led critics to suggest that had the above mentioned quartet stayed together long term, the Azure lineup would have become legendary.
Around the same time, Smith acquired the Arts Foundation/Barclays Private Banking Jazz Composition Fellowship and used the grant to compose new works. In 1996, Smith undertook another project with the hopes of bringing jazz further into the Scottish culture by opening his country’s first National Jazz Institute as part of Strathclyde University in Glasgow. Serving as the institute’s director of music, Smith developed a course that included formal education in jazz harmony, jazz ear training, jazz history, jazz piano, and technology and ensembles. And by the spring of that year, the National Jazz Institute offered its first “Berklee on the Road in the U.K.” course, an intensive, one-week workshop that focused on the study of the African American jazz tradition.
For Smith’s next recorded work, a suite of music commissioned by the Glasgow International Jazz Festival, the musician returned to representing poetry through music by teaming with one of Scotland’s most respected modern poets, Edwin Morgan. Born in Glasgow in 1920, Morgan also held the post of professor of English at Glasgow University until his retirement in 1980. The resulting collaboration, the playfully conceived yet inventive Beats of Scotland, was recorded by Smith’s sextet and released in May of 1996 by Linn. His sidemen included Barker on trumpet, flumpet, and flugelhorn; Hamilton on piano and synthesizer; Andy Panayi on flute and alto saxophone; Alec Dankworth on bass; and Tom Gordon on drums and percussion. Smith concluded the year with a reunion tour in October with Burton and accompanying musicians Christensen and Danielsson.
Resuming his tireless work schedule in 1997, Smith received commissions from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Paragon Ensemble, and the Traverse Theatre to compose new music. His next release, The Sound of Love, a passionate and introspective tribute to the ballads of Ellington and pianist, composer, and arranger Billy Strayhorn, arrived in 1998 and earned rave reviews. Smith assembled an American band for this album, which consisted of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Billy Drummond. “Knowing I couldn’t play a ballad properly, I went back to really work on the lyrics and phrasing,” Smith admitted to Franckling. “I think I mostly matured because I started playing with people who really swung.,”
Two more albums, both of which showcased Smith’s aptitude in other musical genres, were released in 1999. Gymnopedie, released in May of 1999, revealed Smith’s classical side with arrangements of works by Satie, Grieg, and Barták, as well as his own sonatas for saxophone and piano. His second album that year, Blue Smith, which combined elements of both jazz and the blues, was released in October and featured pianist Dave Kikoski, guitarist John Scofield, bassist James Genus, and drummer Greg Hutchinson. In addition to his continued work in the studio, as well as with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in 1999, Smith was named Heriot-Watt University’s (located in Edinburgh, Scotland) youngest honorary “Doctor of the University” at the age of 32.
Peeping Tom, Blue Note, 1990.
Standards, Blue Note, 1991.
Paris, Blue Note, 1992.
Reminiscence, Linn, 1993.
Misty Morning and No Time, Linn, 1994.
Azure, Linn, 1996.
Beasts of Scotland, Linn, 1996.
The Sound of Love, Linn, 1998.
Blue Smith, Linn, 1999.
Gymnopedie, Linn, 1999.
Cook, Richard and Brian Morton, editors, Penguin Guide to Jazz on Compact Disc, Penguin Books, 1998.
Downbeat, October 1999, p. 52.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 4, 2000).
Linn Records, http://www.linnrecords.com (January 4, 2000).
"Smith, Tommy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-tommy
"Smith, Tommy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-tommy
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