Tommy Smith


by Ben Varkentine


Sax player Tommy Smith comes billed as “legendary.” This is probably the usual press-agent puffery, but Smith is a wonderful player of impressive accomplishments. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, by age 17 he was studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and performing with Jaco Pastorius in New York. By age 21 he had an album deal with Blue Note Records, which really is legendary. Since then he has toured and recorded extensively. On Bluesmith, he teams up with John Scofield, who has been called one of the three giants of current jazz guitar by the All-Music Guide. Scofield plays in a rock-influenced idiom that makes use of distortion and other effects splendidly, adding little bits of delightful strangeness. Ten of the songs here are Smith originals, the eleventh, a version of “Amazing Grace,” is one of two short (under two minutes) solo spots for Smith.

“El Nino” launches the CD in fine style, Scofield’s guitar chirps along like a bird and Smith’s sax comes buzzing in like the Dean Martin of bees. Scofield’s penchant for button pushing gives us the industrial, electronic sounds at the beginning of “Hubba Hubba.” “Rain Dance” starts out solo, with Smith playing a vaguely eastern tune on soprano, before drummer Clarence Penn starts tapping away. Though “Dr. Sco” takes it’s name from one of the players, it soon opens up into a feature for each. Penn and bass player James Genus also get a spotlight on the noirish (you can just see the private eye’s office) “Eany Meany Miny Mo.”

There’s really almost nothing I want to criticize about this album. The artwork isn’t quite to my taste, but that’s about it. Smith and his fellow players seem to have found that fusion…you should pardon the expression…that recent releases by George Benson and Eric Truffaz have not between electric rock and acoustic jazz. It should probably be said that Smith does not do anything here to make his music “stand out from the crowd.” He does not attempt any so hip-hop it hurts, and he does not pretend to play electronic music without electronics. He does not do anything distinctive, except that he makes quality music. And it must be said that quality is always relevant.

After the most recent handful of items I’ve reviewed for PopMatters, most of which I hated to greater and lesser degrees, for the first time in days I get to tell you about an album I loved. Whew-I mean that was close.

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