REVIEW: ‘Gecko’ – Tom Smith

TWO things…

Firstly, find yourself a good, bass-responsive speaker system; and then absorb one of the most cheering small ensemble recordings to be heard in a year like no other.

Once the lead alto in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and now with the Patchwork Orchestra, saxophonist, bass clarinettist and composer Tom Smith has twice been a finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and won the 2018 Peter Whittingham Development Award from Help Musicians UK. He already has a string of orchestral and big band arrangements to his name, has worked with artists including Maria Schneider, Donny McCaslin and Beverley Knight, and has garnered plaudits from the likes of Django Bates, Julian Joseph and Soweto Kinch.

Now, at the ‘ripe old age’ of 24 he steps out in debut album Gecko; and his trio with vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield and pianist Will Barry displays a fullness through these original compositions which belies its compact nature. There are echoes of Stan Sulzmann’s Neon project (Here to There, with Jim Hart and Gwilym Simcock, comes to mind) and also the duo of Jason Yarde and Andrew McCormack. But also, significantly, the tone and ebullience of his personal hero Tim Garland (this album’s producer, and surely a wellspring of advice) can be heard in Smith’s unfaltering agility.

Spirited Flamenco Carlos, with its jaunty, showtime piano riff, instantly demonstrates the trio’s capabilities. Piano and vibes frolic with abandon while Smith’s improvisatory ideas overflow – and without a dedicated rhythm instrument, such blistering momentum shouldn’t sound so at ease! At not far off ten minutes’ duration, Steampunk Tendencies shows similar verve, with Will Barry’s low chordal grooving providing the driving force, pushing the saxophonist to ever greater heights.

Like Garland, Tom neatly switches to bass clarinet – in Alex and John (written for a wedding, celebrating LGBTQ+ love), his deeper range is a joy; and there are some lovely, sonorous descending and leaping figures in chameleonic Blueish. Piano and vibraphone may sometimes seem curious companions, but chirpy, slightly comedic House in the Clouds in particular qualifies that match, Barry and Mansfield darting around Smith’s catchy, alto signature-tune riffs. Everyday Epic, too, preens itself with confidence, as light and shade highlight the trio’s empathy.

Graceful piano in Anthem becomes refracted by sustained, shimmering vibraphone; and there’s something both plaintive and considered about the way Smith’s high alto enters only latterly. Reposeful Curiosity, also, is full of glinting reflection, only gradually offering a measured, lapping sense of headway; and melodic Viking Dance’s constantly-shifting textures and colours are fascinating to pore over.

Focus on the detail in these nine tracks, rather than pushing them to the background. Tom Smith’s interaction with his colleagues is intelligent, never short on technical flair or improvisational enterprise – and with his track record thus far, Gecko suggests many, still greater things to come.

Released on 6 November 2020 – Basho Records’ first digital-only release – and available at Bandcamp.


Tom Smith saxophone, bass clarinet
Jonny Mansfield vibraphone
Will Barry piano

Basho Records – SRCD58-2 (2020)


RECENT LISTENING: October 2020 (2)

‘Between The Lines’ – Steve Hamilton
Steve Hamilton, Martin Taylor, Don Paterson, Paul Booth, Davie Dunsmuir
Release date: 21 August 2020

‘The Monk Watches The Eagle’ – Keith Tippett
Keith Tippett, Julie Tippetts, Paul Dunmall, Kevin Figes, Ben Waghorn, Chris Biscoe, Tim Redpath, Rob Buckland, Andy Scott, David Roach, BBC Singers
Release date: 23 September 2020 (BBC recording released under licence by Discus Music)

‘Mondenkind’ – Michael Wollny
Michael Wollny – solo piano
Release date: 25 September 2020 (ACT Music)

‘Gecko’ – Tom Smith
Tom Smith, Will Barry, Jonny Mansfield
Release date: 6 November 2020 (Basho Records)

‘The Science of Snow’ – Beresford Hammond


I’VE BEEN studying science. To be more precise, The Science of Snow…… a free improvisation release which, like some delicately efflorescent ice crystal, has securely grabbed and held my attention. “Free improvisation?”, you may ask. “Abstract self-indulgence?”, you might inquire. Well, the beauty of this experience entirely depends on both your musical standpoint and your aesthetic receptivity.

Charlie Beresford is an acoustic guitarist, pianist and visual artist based in Radnorshire, in the Welsh Marches (twixt the Shropshire Hills in the North and the Brecon Beacons in the South). Classically-trained cellist Sonia Hammond, too, resides in this beautiful rural oasis – and both are founding members of the Radnor Improvisers. A cancelled studio booking led the musicians (already established in their respective musical careers) to maximise the opportunity by opening up an improvisational session; and what ensued was this spontaneous, imaginative blend of sound, drawing on contemporary classical, jazz and rustic folk.

Those who have witnessed the charm of Knighton, Presteigne, Kington, Hergest Ridge and surrounding areas cannot fail to have been affected, either creatively or spiritually, by their unquestionable splendour (alluded to in this album’s evocative, ECM-like sleeve photography). And here, Beresford and Hammond appear to reflect their impressions of those landscapes, and the changing seasons’ effect on them, in this engaging 45-minute dialogue of highly unpredictable artistry.

Winter is implied in the title track, as Beresford’s thinly-timbred guitar picking is tempered by Hammond’s sustained, Tavener-like cello phrases – a vivid pictorialisation of watercolour sunrise melting night’s icicle sculptures; and Marking the Hillside‘s hollow, gamelan-style chimes underpin searing, misty harmonics and fascinatingly abrasive strings and percussive slaps. The eight-minute panorama of Headless Bluebell may seem disquieting, yet the multicoloured hues of piano and cello (suggesting Glass, and even glimpses of Elgar’s later-life chamber works) summon images of the Borders’ mercurial climate, as if viewed from steep mountain tops.

Snow Blindness possesses a frail beauty, its wide-openness easily conjuring the more melancholic character of Peter Warlock (The Curlew) or E J Moeran (the string quartets) – both of whom resided in these Welsh borderlands; and Beresford’s mellower, folksy guitar provides some warmth in an otherwise bleak soundscape. The dissonant undercurrent of Scratching the Sky, achieved through close, fluctuating cello and guitar intervals, is shot through with the Finzi-like intensity of Hammond’s attack, as well as muted prog-rock guitar ostinato.

In contrast, searing heat is imagined in Gecko as Beresford’s Steve Reich-fashioned rhythms, amidst disembodied clatters, are impressively traversed by sinewy, writhing cello; and the relative cello serenity of Inside and Outside the Head is curiously threatened by persistent, percussive bows and scrapes from Beresford’s guitar. To close, The Path, the Bridge, and the Otherside might hint at folksong, as cantabile cello finds greater harmony with its captivatingly intricate guitar accompaniment.

Free improvisation might well be perceived as challenging – but, once ‘inside’ this deeply-created music, and listened to as closely as possible, it can create a powerful, personal response. For me, the experiences of discovery in this album continue.

The Science of Snow is available in CD and download formats at Bandcamp (videos to view here).


Charlie Beresford acoustic guitar, piano
Sonia Hammond cello

the52nd – 52NDCD001 (2014)