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Torah and Beauty and the Beast

RSAMD, Saturday 21st May 2011

Each half of this concert consisted of a saxophone player backed by a big band playing a long concertante work by Tommy Smith. But they were very different.

In the first half, Smith himself was the soloist in his recent Torah. I must admit that despite have listened to it a few times on CD, I still find this piece a tough listen.

Steve Hamilton on piano got the chance to play a couple of solos, but apart from that it was tenor sax and big band all the way, for over an hour. Smith demonstrated once again that he’s got a superb control of the different tonal possibilities of the horn, sometimes playing with a light lyrical tone, sometimes honking and squealing raucously. However, I can’t help feeling that the piece needs something to give it a bit more variety: a trumpet or alto solo here or there might have helped.

Some of the subtleties of the scoring came over better live than on record: the trombone and trumpet chorale near the end was much more obvious, and I’d never noticed before how much reminiscent of sixties spy movie music the piano ostinato in the last couple of movements was.

This was a fine performance of what is clearly a major piece, but I must confess that at present it’s a work I find easier to admire than to love. But I’ll continue to listen, and who knows, maybe one day it will all click into place.

I found the second half, Beauty and the Beast, which featured Bill Evans as soloist, rather more accessible. There were a few changes in the line-up of the SNJO, with Martin Kershaw switching from alto to soprano, bass guitarist Kevin Glasgow replacing double bass player Callum Gourlay, a tuba player whose name I didn’t catch joining the brass section, and Tommy Smith taking his place in the sax section. Yet despite the band having a couple of members more in this half, there seemed to be more air, more light and shade, in the music.

Essentially the piece played with the contrast between two different sets of material: a light, dancing “Beauty” music, and a brassier, more dissonant, “Beast” music. At first the approach seemed very schematic, with Bill Evans playing the Beauty material on soprano sax, then switching to tenor for the Beast bits, but as the work progressed both horns were used on both lots of material.

Although Evans (wearing his trademark bandana) was the main soloist there seemed a bit more variety in the music, down at least in part to the way he alternated between the two saxophones. There was also a notable recurring passage in which Alyn Cosker abandoned his drum kit to play a bass drum and tamtam part reminiscent of sections of The Rite of Spring. Steve Hamilton was again the only other soloist.

One of the interesting things about this work was the way in which it demonstrated how, in jazz, the individual performer’s style is as important as the written material. Some of the melodic lines were typical of Tommy Smith, but Evans’s different sound and more rhythmic, funkier, phrasing meant that they sounded very different from the way they would if the composer had played them himself.

For an encore, we were treated to a quintet of Smith, Evans, Hamilton, Glasgow and Cosker performing a two tenor version one of the pieces from Tommy Smith’s new Karma album. It was very impressive – it would be good to hear the two saxophonists work together in this sort of combination on a more extended basis as they’ve got nicely complementary styles.

Rob Adams’ Herald review of the Edinburgh performance is available online. He also did an interview with Bill Evans, in which Evans talks about this project, about working with Miles Davis, and about why he decided to be a saxophonist rather than a pianist.