Tommy Smith was a mere teenager when he recorded his first album,Giant Strides, almost thirty years ago, and was in his early twenties when he was signed by Blue Note, an acknowledgement of his prowess as one of the most outstanding saxophonist of his, or any other age.
Since those halcyon days of old, Smith has become one of the most astute and brilliant jazz collaborators in the world, and his direction ofAmerican Adventure with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, which he established in 1995, follows on the back of having recorded 26 solo albums.
His encyclopedic knowledge of jazz – both old and new – is second to none and he has always shown an unerring eye, or ear, for throwing exceptional talent into the mix: therefore, with American Adventure, recorded last year in New York during a tour, Smith has assimilated some of the brightest and the best of contemporary American jazz, including Mike Stern, Bill Evans, Randy Brecker, to name but a mere handful, and Kurt Elling, who lends a majestic vocal to Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.
Smith, who has worked in the past with musicians as diverse as Rashied Ali and Jaco Pastorious, is in many ways a modern day Ellington, who was particularly gifted at melding his accompanists into a tight unit.
While the prodigious Ellington composed specifically for the style and skills of his individual musicians, Smith, as is demonstrably clear on the swinging opening track, Splatch, is gifted at bringing organisation to initial mayhem, covering, in the words of Donny McCaslin, a broad spectrum of styles in a cohesive and organic way.
What you can expect from spending some time in the company of American Adventure is a modern polishing of incandescent compositions; Ellington’sSound of Love is lush but wonderfully executed by Elling. Throughout, Smith uses the big guns to connect with the natural enthusiasm of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Thus, they are all big numbers with an urbane and old fashioned joie de vivre:Pendulum, with the orchestra at its zenith, with prolonged solos by Donny McCaslin and David Liebman, is a trip into the heart of what Tommy Smith set out to achieve on this seven track recording: the feel of a live performance. The piano solo by David Kikoski, abetted by Clarence Penn on drums, is worth the price of the CD alone.
It seems churlish to single out certain musicians but there is an absolutely gorgeous solo from tenor saxophonist Bill Evans who burns his way throughQuartet No 1 by Chick Corea, who first spotted Smith’s talent when was 18, again with Kikoski in dynamic mode, and while compelling solos abound throughout (eavesdrop on Donny McCaslin on the Corea number), I found myself returning to the opening number, Splatch, simply to wallow in Mike Stern’s guitar: funky, punchy and wholesome, like this great recording itself