Saxophonist Smith’s “grunge band” actually lands fairly far from the intended mark.
Daniel Spicer 2011
Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith has long been portrayed – at least by home-grown critics – as a world-class hornsman with serious chops and swagger to match. True enough, after shooting to prominence as a precocious teenager, he was signed to the iconic Blue Note label for a brief spell from 1989 and has honed a heavy-swinging, hard-bop persona that trades on the familiar notion of the saxophonist as macho warrior, while making music that is firmly rooted in the jazz tradition.
This latest (his 24th solo album) is something of a departure, signalling a move towards a funky jazz-rock approach. It’s also the debut of a new band that sees Smith joined by long-time colleagues, drummer Alyn Cosker and keyboard player Steve Hamilton, as well as a newer associate, bass-guitarist Kevin Glasgow. In fact, it’s Glasgow who makes the biggest impact here, providing thumping funk basslines with a sharp, business-like definition and easy virtuosity. On tracks like Cause and Effect bass and drums lock into funky patterns that rocket ahead at such breakneck speed, and with such tightness, that it almost verges on thrash-metal. Indeed, the sleeve-notes to this record name check thrash monsters Megadeth, as well as suggesting that Smith sees this as his "grunge band".
But, it has to be said, if that’s Smith’s intention, he’s struck pretty far of the mark. Even at the album’s heaviest moments, it remains somewhat straight-laced, lacking even a speck of grunge. That’s partly due to the shiny production job and partly due to Smith’s compositions. Notwithstanding Glasgow’s agile bassline, Good Deed sounds like a daytime TV theme; Projection has an Irish air with wistful whiff of Celtic cliché about it; and Land of Heroes is a clean and tasteful ballad with a Scottish tinge. It’s only on Tomorrow – an Arabian-flavoured workout that includes an impressive, extended tenor solo – that Smith seems to work up anything near a sweat. But, even here, he’s so precisely controlled that it feels like a facsimile of abandon rather than a truly transcendent moment.
You just can’t help feeling that the whole project would be so much more gripping if Smith would let his perfect coiffure get just a little messed up from time to time.