At the tender age of 19. Edinburgh-born saxophonist Tommy Smith has the potential to be the only jazz player ofreal world standing Scotland has so far produced. He hasn't done too badly so far. with two solo albums (the first cut when he was only 16) and two albums with his band Forward Motion already in his discography. alongside Whiz Kids. the only recorded fruits of his association with one ofthe premierjazz outfits. The Gary Burton Quintet. Tommy first came to the attention ofthe vibes maestro at Berklee College in Boston. although. as Burton recalls. recruiting him for the band was a rather more gradual process.
‘A streak oforiginality’
‘chourse. he came to Berklee as a student. and Berklee is a very large place. so even though I am there. I don‘t necessarily hear all the students. or even all the good ones. With Tommy. it came about when (Thick (.‘orea came to do a short residency which included a concert of music he had written fora student group to play with him. Tommy was recommended by the woodwind department. That was the first time I heard him. and he sounded very impressive — in fact. (‘hick was the first one to say to me ‘(iee. you ought to get that guy in your band. he‘d be perfect for you.
‘The next opportunity that came up was another student project. which was going on a ship in the Caribbean for a week - they have a jazz festival at sea. I arranged to take a student group down. so I asked Tommy ifhe wanted to play with us. It was during that week. actually. that I began to get the idea of using him on a regular basis. because rehearsing for that project. and playing with him in a small group context not too unlike my own. I began to imagine how the group would sound with the tenor. and with Tommy.
‘Tommy Will grow steadily’
‘I also began to be taken with his style and his personality — Tommy has a way about him. he has a certain kind ofcharm which tends to win over most people that he meets. to the point where people — and this has been the story of his life so far. I think — get rather enthralled by him. and end up doing anything they can to help. That‘s a great quality for him to have. and will help his career as the years go on. just as he was successful in coming to Berklee in the first place. that whole thing with raising the money in Edinburgh to allow him to come. So that‘s how it came to be — after the cruise I asked him to join the group. and he played a gig with us a couple of weeks later. From then on. he was in the band.‘
Tommy Smith brought a much-needed variation to the vibes and piano front line ofthe Burton group. especially since Gary and Makoto Ozone. another Berklee graduate. play in a rather similar way. The Quintet is made up by two more graduates. a new French bass
Tommy Smith. saxophonist from Wester Hailes. is still
only 19 and about to go solo. An exceptionally talented
young man at a crucial stage of his career. as fellowjazz musician Gary Burton (inset) tells Joe Alexander.
player. Gildas Bocla. who Tommy rates highly. and drummer Marty Richards. Aside from that variation. what was it that attracted (iary to Tommy’s playing. in a currently crowded field?
‘When I look back to my own beginnings. if you were a hot young player. you could just about write your own ticket. Nowadays. due to increased opportunites to study music and a more accessible playing scene. there are simply more quite excellent. very together players. and there are just not enough jobs around for all ofthem. You quite often see a player and you have to say I can’t think ofa single thing wrong with this guy‘s playing. and yet he‘s been living in NY for two years now. he works as a cab driver and maybe plays the occasional gig. but he hasn't managed to find any steady work.
‘The thing which sets Tommy apart is having a streak oforiginality in his playing. a certain spark of identity
that comes through. That is avery elusive thing— you can‘t study to achieve that. it‘s not something that if you practice more you will develop it. It either happens or it doesn‘t. and it has a lot to do with personality — if you are a colourful. interesting person that will probably come through in your playing. I know some other young tenors who are
‘It’s just a matter oftime’
wonderful players. but Tommy has this little extra quality which kind of intrigues you and gets your attention. and makes you keep listening for fear that ifyou take your attention offhim. you will miss something.
‘It's that quality which attracts me to his playing. He‘s not finished growing as a player by any means — I was in that same position myself when I was a young player who got an early start. and I remember my
reaction when I would get criticism for not having enough depth in my playing and so on; What do you expect. I would say. I'm 18 years old. I've never suffered in my life. give me a break — I‘m playing what I am now. and there is still a lot to do. I think this is true ofTommy — as good as he is now. and as much fun as he is to listen to. I think ofwhat‘s ahead of him.
‘Some players have an early success. then can‘t keep going. and by the time they are 30 they‘re not so impressive any more. But Tommy will continue to grow steadily. because he has done so in the time I‘ve know him. and because he has a very strong committment to perfection. to quality. and to achievement. This is a guy who sometimes gives the outward
impression that he's a spontaneous. devil-may-care kid. but not far under the surface you find this really tenacious fanatic who knows what
. he‘s going after and works rather
tirelessly to get there.
"There are some players you just know are going to make it. it‘s just a matter oftime — I felt that about Pat Metheny when I first heard him. and about Makoto. and also about Tommy. Some people you say well. he's talented. maybe he will. maybe he won‘t. but there is the occasional one who has the smell ofsuccess about him.‘
Following Forward Motion's recent tour. Scottish jazz fans will get the chance to hear Tommy‘s work in the Burton Quintet at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh on July 2-1. a gig which will be the young saxophonist‘s penultimate appearance with the band. Tommy has decided that the time has arrived for him to go out on his own. a hazardous proceeding in the jazz world these days. Both men feel that this is the right time for the break. but it leaves Tommy having to establish a new reputation in his own right. as he explains.
‘I‘m going to use Gary‘s tour to talk to all the promotors. and Gary is going to help with that. then there is this BBC film. which isa 5(lminute documentary which will feature me playing with a number ofdifferent bands. and they interview my mother and things like that. That is supposed to come out around the end of the year. so I'm hoping that will generate some interest as well. Right now. I‘m talking to various record companies. so hopefully I‘ll get a record deal soon. which would mean I could make a record with the musicians I want to work with — if the money‘s right. Basically. I‘ve put myselfout on a ledge to do what I want to do. and I've got to make that work now.‘
Tommy Smith has arrived at a crossroads in his career. but as Gary says. there are some players you just know are going to make it. It‘s only a matter oftime. (Joe Alexander)
Tommy Smith appears with the Burton Quintet at the Queen '5 Hall, Edinburgh on 24 July.
8 The List 24 July — 6 August