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

tomsmithsax.com

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
stevehamilton.bandcamp.com

‘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)
discusmusic.bandcamp.com

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

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

‘Fellow Creatures’ – Jasper Høiby

FellowCreatures

THE EXPERIENCE is entrenched in mind and soul – those purely analogue days of poring over and falling in love with a new vinyl and its gatefold sleeve art, flipping the 12″ over at the exit groove so many times that one grew to anticipate every track, every bar, every instrumental entry. 

There’s something of that sentiment captured within double bassist, composer and bandleader Jasper Høiby’s new release, Fellow Creatures. Now a prominent personality and musical backbone of so many outstanding contemporary jazz line-ups – most notably as creator of enduringly successful trio Phronesis, but also a key player with names such as Marius Neset, Django Bates, Mark Guiliana and Kairos 4tet – the bassist sees these ten, eloquent tracks as a narrative in which the listener might connect with the music and its interpreters across the album’s near-full-hour entirety. In that context, he couldn’t have wished for a more empathetic personnel than Mark Lockheart (saxes), Laura Jurd (trumpet, flugel), Will Barry (piano) and Corrie Dick (drums).

Høiby explains that he has long wished to broaden his writing to a larger ensemble, including two melody instruments; and whilst his signature percussive/cantabile bass technique and Phronesis-based compositional identity are pleasingly evident here, he opens up a refreshingly bright, undulating vista which takes in graceful, Scandinavian folkiness, zesty post-bop jazz riffs and improvisational free-spiritedness… plus a dash of characteristic mischief. Canadian author Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything is cited amongst the inspiration for the writing and track titles, highlighting the need to recognise and embrace the fragility of the earth and its natural resources; that, and also the importance of family and human accord.

Key to the album’s intent are Høiby’s memorable hooks which become enchantingly familiar – Folk Song‘s plaintive trumpet and piano tune in thirds which, traced with high, wiry arco bass harmonics, follows the otherwise spacial freedom of its beginnings; or the close trumpet and tenor sax ‘crashing wave’ phrases in title track Fellow Creatures, a number which excitedly ripples to the kind of unison piano-and-bass riffs that Phronesis fans will easily recognise. Laura Jurd’s increasing prominence on the UK jazz circuit (currently a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist) includes left-field projects such as Blue-Eyed Hawk and, recently, Huw V Williams’ album Hon. Yet here, her particularly clear tones combine perfectly with those of distinguished saxophonist Mark Lockheart to create a rich frontline, as in urgent soundtrack for troubled times, World of Contradictions, and especially in Little Song for Mankind where their intertwining boisterousness (Jurd as high and hard-hitting as, say, Jon Faddis) is swelled by the remaining trio’s turbulent undercurrent.

Optimistic mariachi dance Song for the Bees finds the horn duo gyrating around Høiby’s unmistakably conversational bass ground (almost guaranteed to bring out the sun), whilst Tangible is reminiscent of Ivo Neame’s compositions for trio, Will Barry’s pianistic invention just as engaging. Quartet piece Collective Spaces (minus piano) feels intimately folky, akin to a journeying minstrel band, whereas the bassist’s groove which sets up Suddenly, Everyone inspires a ‘Phronesis big band’ episode which explodes to Corrie Dick’s skittering, crashing percussion and impressive tenor and trumpet improv. Lumbering, tricksy Before feels just on the edge of hysterics from duo Lockheart and Høiby; and closer Plastic Island perpetuates the band camaraderie as it stomps both gleefully and anarchically to a choppy bass-and-piano motif, swaggering tenor, growling trumpet and impertinent percussion – fabulous!

Høiby’s summing-up of this album is surely something to which most of us would aspire: “This music is an encouragement to the love between human beings and an acknowledgement of our belonging to nature, that I believe we all share as fellow creatures.” Indeed, this quintet’s joyous, life-enriching creativity provides us with a continuing hope.

Released on Edition Records on 15 July 2016, Fellow Creatures is available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

Jasper Høiby double bass, composer
Mark Lockheart saxophones
Laura Jurd trumpet, flugel
Will Barry piano
Corrie Dick drums

jasperhoiby.com

Edition Records – EDN1075 (2016)