The Scotsman Sessions #283: Tommy Smith

Welcome to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions. With performing arts activity curtailed, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, saxophonist Tommy Smith mixes jazz standards, improvisation and some of his own compositions in the spectacular surroundings of St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh

The very contemporary resonances of tenor saxophone echo off the age-old stones of St Giles’ Cathedral in this video made of Tommy Smith’s solo performance there in July by cameraman and film editor Adam Usmani. It captures Smith in the first 17 minutes of what was an hour-long flow in which jazz standards, his own compositions and even Gregorian chant rubbed shoulders with spontaneous improvisation.

Smith peregrinates the superb acoustic space of the High Kirk of Edinburgh, entering the central sanctuary with an introductory sax invocation before Eden Ahbez’s Nature Boy seems to float up towards one of the splendid stained glass windows. Other numbers which emerge are Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight, two of Smith’s own – Spirit of Light and Body or Soul – and even a snatch of plainchant, Tibi Christe, Splendor Patris, before closing with Over the Rainbow. There’s a piquant moment when, between notes, you can just hear the bell of St Giles striking distantly from that ancient crown spire, high above.

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“When I approach going out there,” Smith says, “there’s no set thing. I went into Nature Boy though I could have gone into whatever. Then I just play because I know so many songs, I’m not frightened not to have a set list in front of me; sometimes between pieces I’ll just improvise, but it’s mostly about melody and space and creating something in that space depending on whether the reverb is long or short.”

Tommy Smith

Smith is no stranger to utilising spectacular natural acoustics. This summer has seen him play solo cathedral concerts, including Lichfield and St Machar’s, Aberdeen, and he’ll play another at Dunblane Cathedral on the 26th of this month. So far, he says “St Giles has topped them all.”

His sonic explorations of acoustically rewarding spaces go back as far as 2001, when he recorded his solo album Into Silence in the extraordinary Hamilton Mausoleum, where the reverb is even longer than in St Giles’: “The fundamental thing about these spaces is about leaving the sound to ring. You have to learn to leave space and allow the reverb to speak.”

Smith actually played in St Giles back in May, on that occasion in the company of the mighty Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, which he directs, and the artist Maria Rud, in a live-streamed spectacular combining jazz improvisation with Rud’s spontaneous painting.

In rather different circumstances, Smith takes the stage with the SNJO once again on 24 September, in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, as the now internationally acclaimed big band celebrates its 25th anniversary in what should prove to be a jubilant return to live-audience performance.

The band’s first live gig in 18 months following lockdown, the Live at 25 programme will include music it has performed over the years, ranging from Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and Leonard Bernstein, through fusion pioneers such as Weather Report, to Scottish material including an extract from the Culloden Moor Suite, composed by the late, great Glasgow-born saxophonist Bobby Wellins.

For further SNJO dates, see https://snjo.co.uk

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