Internationally-regarded Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith brings his Embodying the Light quartet to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s Late Night Studio Jazz concert series on Saturday, 10 November.
The group, which Smith formed last year to mark both the fiftieth anniversary of his greatest inspiration, saxophone icon John Coltrane’s death and his own fiftieth birthday, has had rave responses from audiences, promoters, reviewers and fellow musicians alike.
American trumpet star Randy Brecker, who has worked with the Smith-led Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and whose late Brother, Michael, was a Coltrane devotee, sent a message of congratulations to Smith on hearing the quartet’s debut album. Brecker joked that he’d been playing along with the CD in the hope that some of the quartet’s quality might rub off on him.
“It’s always great when musicians you really respect say positive things about your work,” says Smith, who admits to not being a fan of Coltrane on first listen as a teenager.
“I’d heard a lot about him, so I saved up money from this weekly gig I was playing at the time and went into a record shop in Cockburn Street, in Edinburgh where I saw an album cover with Coltrane looking cool, sitting holding a soprano saxophone,” he says. “It was called Ascension and I decided to buy it.”
When he got the album home and played it, he took it off after two bars.
“It was horrible,” he says. “I skipped through the tracks and just couldn’t get my head round what this guy was doing. So I put it back in the bag, got on the bus – it was a long way back into town from where I lived – and took it back to the shop but the guy in the shop refused to give me a refund or exchange it. Eventually, as my ear developed, I got into it but it took some time and by the time I came to appreciate it I’d taken a different route into Coltrane through the album Blue Trane, which I loved immediately.”
These days, having progressed through teenage triumphs with vibes virtuoso Gary Burton’s Whiz Kids band, recorded dozens of albums under his own name, founded the internationally acclaimed Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and toured the world with Norwegian bass master Arild Andersen’s trio for the past decade, Smith guides the careers of students on the jazz course he established at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
He’s a voice of huge experience to his students while his contacts book ensures that the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra continues to host a procession of top line guests.
The Embodying the Light quartet, which launched with a sold-out concert at Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival 2017 and went on to draw a capacity audience at Ronnie Scott’s in London, features two of Smith’s protégés from his youth orchestra, pianist Peter Johnstone and bassist Calum Gourlay, alongside drummer Sebastiaan de Krom, who has previously worked with Herbie Hancock and Jamie Cullum.
In concert they play without amplification, a policy Smith also favours when working with his long-time duo partner, pianist Brian Kellock.
“I’ve nothing against amplified music,” he says. “My previous band, Karma, played powerful electric jazz-rock. With this group, it just feels more natural to play acoustically. It makes us listen to each other more carefully and the audience gets to hear the true sounds of the instruments and the band.”