IT MIGHT be an ‘age thing’, but my appreciation of contemporary jazz releases is increasingly deepened by ‘living them’ over a period of time – there can be many layers of interest to peel back and discover.
Perhaps there was something of that concept of arrival in Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith’s mind as he finally “transcended to the club” of interpreters of John Coltrane’s music with this quartet dedication, marking the coincidence of his 50th birthday this year with the same anniversary of Trane’s passing. Indeed, a wry smile was brought on by Smith’s story that, as a youngster, he spent his hard-saved cash on Coltrane’s free-jazz Ascension, only to head back to the record store and demand his money back as he “unequivocally hated it” (failing to do so, he simply left it there and stormed out). How many of us can relate to such a tale – that years later, with the benefit of experience and more mature ears, comes the realisation of just how brilliant a certain recording always was?!
Tommy Smith’s credentials as leader, sideman and educator need little introduction; and it’s testament to all that experience that he and his colleagues here – pianist Pete Johnstone, double bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Sebastiaan de Krom – approached this live-studio recording without rehearsal, to achieve the energy he was seeking. The resulting Embodying the Light is a zesty 79-minute acoustic session which seamlessly intertwines five Trane tunes with three of Smith’s, along with an especially sizzling Gershwin rendition.
Fast-swinging and expansive Transformation (which a 15-year-old Smith first conceived as ‘Traneing for Life’) ascends through the written sequences, prompting his own breathless improvisations; and against the incessant rhythmic verve, Pete Johnstone’s piano sparkles with jabbing, leaping invention. Faithful to the original, Dear Lord‘s elegant balance is detailed with swooning tenor phrasings; and the richness of Naima becomes emboldened by a buoyant central section featuring Smith’s effusive lines.
As the album proceeds, there’s a sense that the quartet manages to capture the immediacy of early-’60s Coltrane – even Smith’s title-track blues evokes the period through memorable riffs and blithe outlook, as does the urgent groove of Resolution with its angular piano edge and modal sax explorations against a fiery Gourlay/de Krom rhythm section. The original cacophony of The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is reinterpreted as a more gently-rippling anthemic quest, whilst Gershwin’s Summertime (from 1961’s ‘My Favorite Things’) dismisses any notion of ‘tired cover’. Smith’s propulsive Embodying the Darkness finds the leader at his most adventurous, more intensely invoking the free spirit of the dedicatee; and to conclude, Trane’s Transition displays an appealing fluidity, with Pete (‘Tyner’?) Johnstone ramping-up the irresistible fervour with chordal vigour and high-flying improv.
Tommy Smith describes his tribute to John Coltrane as “probably the most terrifying journey you can prepare for, since one is never ready to relinquish the music for the Master”. Given the genuine focus and passion on display here, this quartet has timed it to perfection.
Video: live at BBC Radio Scotland’s Jazz Nights at the Quay.
Tommy Smith tenor saxophone
Pete Johnstone piano
Calum Gourlay bass
Sebastiaan de Krom drums
Spartacus Records – STS025 (2017)