Tommy Smith (saxophonist)

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Tommy Smith
Background information
Birth nameThomas William Ellis Smith
Born(1967-04-27)27 April 1967
Edinburgh, Scotland
Genres Jazz, orchestral jazz, swing, classical, free improvisation
Occupation(s)Musician, band leader, composer, educator
InstrumentsTenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, shakuhachi, piano
Years active1981–present
Labels Hep, Head, ECM, Blue Note, Linn, Spartacus
Associated actsScottish National Jazz Orchestra, Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra, Arild Andersen, Paolo Vinaccia

Thomas William Ellis Smith OBE is a Scottish jazz saxophonist, composer, and educator.


Early life

Smith was born in Edinburgh to Scottish parents Brenda Ann Urquhart, and father, William John Ellis, whom he never met. Smith was brought up in the Wester Hailes area of the city, where he was encouraged by his stepfather, George Smith, an avid jazz fan and drummer in the Gene Krupa style, to take up the tenor saxophone at the age of twelve. [1] When he was thirteen he attended a weekly jazz workshop under the direction of Gordon Cruikshank. He met pathologist and pianist Vincenzo Crucioli, who became a mentor. With drummer John Rae, his first group won Edinburgh International Jazz Festival Best Group award in 1981. At fourteen Smith won Best Soloist. He attributes much of his early success to the tuition of Vincenzo Crucioli. Under additional clarinettist Jim O'Malley and pianist Jean Allison at Wester Hailes Education Centre, Smith was soon performing around Edinburgh and Scotland with his quartet with John Rae. In 1983, at sixteen, he recorded his first album Giant Strides with a trio featuring Rae & Alan Taylor. During the same year, he recorded his second album Taking Off, and won a scholarship, assisted by a fund-raising program organized by his music teacher, Jean Allison, to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. [2] At Berklee he formed the band Forward Motion with Norwegian bassist Terje Gewelt, Canadian drummer Ian Froman, and Hungarian pianist Laszlo Gardony. The band recorded two albums, Progressions and The Berklee Tapes.

Later career

With a recommendation from Chick Corea, Smith joined Berklee vice-president Gary Burton's group with bassist Steve Swallow, pianist Makoto Ozone, and drummer Adam Nussbaum, touring the world and recording the album Whiz Kids for ECM. [3]

In 1989, when he was twenty-two, Smith signed with Blue Note, which released his album Step by Step. Burton produced the album with a band consisting of John Scofield (guitar), Eddie Gómez (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Three more albums followed for Blue Note: Peeping Tom (1990), Standards (1991), and Paris (1992). During this period Smith hosted a series of BBC-TV specials called Jazz Types in which he performed with guests such as Tommy Flanagan, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Bobby Watson, Arild Andersen, Hue and Cry, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Smith recorded and toured with Hue and Cry, a duo of brothers Pat and Greg Kane with American vibist Joe Locke, percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and Arild Andersen. Smith also examined classical composition, leading to his first saxophone concerto, Unirsi in Matrimonio, and a suite for saxophone and strings, Un Ecossais a Paris.

In 1993, Smith joined Scottish label Linn Records. His albums, Reminiscence (1993), Misty Morning and No Time (1994), Azure (1995, with Jon Christensen, Lars Danielsson and Kenny Wheeler), and Beasts of Scotland (1996) were released. Writing in Playboy magazine, Neil Tesser noted of Beasts of Scotland that "Smith's artful writing makes the ensemble sound like a petite Philharmonic." [4] The Sound of Love followed. Recorded in New York City in September 1997 with Kenny Barron (piano), Peter Washington (bass), and Billy Drummond (drums), it focused on the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn songbook. Gymnopedie: The Classical Side of Tommy Smith (1998) was recorded with his regular duo partner, classical pianist Murray McLachlan. The disc included music by Satie, Bartok, Grieg, and Chick Corea, and Smith's Sonatas No. 1 "Hall of Mirrors" and No. 2 "Dreaming With Open Eyes" based on Michael Tucker's book of the same title. Returning to jazz and to New York the following year, Smith then recorded his final album for Linn, Blue Smith, with John Scofield and his regular rhythm section of bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn.

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

Tommy Smith conducting the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra featuring special Guest Courtney Pine in 2014 Tommy-Smith SNJO-2014-DerekClarkPhoto.jpg
Tommy Smith conducting the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra featuring special Guest Courtney Pine in 2014

In 1995 Smith founded the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, which has presented programs of repertory classics and more contemporary works, often specially commissioned.

The repertory programs have included Duke Ellington's extended suites, celebrations of Count Basie and Benny Goodman (with special guest Ken Peplowski) and the collaborations between Miles Davis and Gil EvansPorgy & Bess, Sketches of Spain (both with Gerard Presencer as trumpet soloist) and Miles Ahead (with Ingrid Jensen). SNJO has presented the music of Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Benny Carter, Stan Kenton, Thelonious Monk, Steely Dan, Astor Piazzolla, and Pat Metheny (with guitarists Jim Mullen, Phil Robson, Mike Walker and Kevin MacKenzie) and premiered special commissions by Keith Tippett, Florian Ross, and Geoffrey Keezer, as well as specially commissioned arrangements of John Coltrane, Chick Corea (with drummer Gary Novak), Wayne Shorter featuring Gary Burton, Electric Miles featuring John Scofield, Weather Report featuring Peter Erskine, and Kurt Elling.

In addition, SNJO has performed music by contemporary jazz musicians. These include Kenny Wheeler's Sweet Sister Suite; Joe Lovano's Celebrating Sinatra with arrangements by Manny Albam; the music of Maria Schneider conducted by the composer; and Smith's Planet Wave, a large-scale composition made possible by the Arts Foundation/Barclays Bank jazz composition fellowship prize which marries Smith's music to text by poet Edwin Morgan. The concerts with Lovano also featured the premiere of Smith's Torah, a work based on the first five books of the Bible in which a titanic struggle occurs between good and evil. Written over seventy days, the fifty-minute composition was created for Lovano and SNJO. During the same evening that Torah was being premiered in Scotland, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth premiered The Morning of the Imminent by Smith and Morgan at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Classical music

Smith recording his epic Modern Jacobite piece with The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Tommy-Smith BBC-SSO DerekClarkPhoto.jpg
Smith recording his epic Modern Jacobite piece with The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

In 1989 Smith performed An Rathad ùr, a concerto for saxophone by William Sweeney, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for the television series Jazz Types, which Smith also presented. Prompted by Roger Pollen of the Scottish Ensemble, he spent six months studying orchestration for strings with a commission for saxophone and strings very much in mind. As a Blue Note musician at the time, Smith had access to the parent company EMI's classical catalogue. He researched orchestration texts by Samuel Adler, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cecil Forsyth, and spent two productive years in Paris where he studied classical music. He wrote his first classical composition, Unirsi in Matrimonio, for saxophone and strings in 1990. [5] This was followed by another work for strings and saxophone, Un Ecossais A Paris in 1991, and he collaborated with classical pianist (Murray McLachlan) for Sonata No.1 - Hall of Mirrors and Sonata No.2 Dreaming with Open Eyes, both for saxophone and piano.

The next seven years were spent preparing for a much bigger orchestral work, the saxophone concerto Hiroshima (1998). This was premiered with the Orchestra of St. John Smith's Square at Chelmsford Cathedral and included strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, piano, and saxophone. Smith appeared as solo saxophonist for Sally Beamish's The Knotgrass Elegy, commissioned for the 2001 BBC Proms, and performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London. [6] In 2002, Smith performed his earlier and much lengthier re-invention of Children's Songs for saxophone and orchestra with the Scottish Ensemble at St John's Kirk, Perth. [7] Other classical music endeavours have included a massive undertaking for the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra's 40th anniversary in 2003. A suite, entitled Edinburgh, was written for the occasion with saxophone, bass, drums, and a one hundred person symphony orchestra. The work toured Scotland, Estonia, Russia, and Finland


As leader

With the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

With the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra

With Arild Andersen and Paolo Vinaccia

As guest

Awards and honors

2019Scottish Jazz Award [Best Band/SNJO]
2019OBE [Her Majesty The Queen's New Year honours list] 2019 New Year Honours
2017British Jazz Award [Big Band]
2015Parliamentary Jazz Award [Educator]
2013Scottish Jazz Award [Best Live Performance/SNJO]
2013Honorary Doctorate of Music University of Edinburgh
2012British Jazz Award [Big Band]
2012Scottish Jazz Award [Educator]
2012Scottish Jazz Award [Album 'KARMA']
2011Scottish Jazz Award [Educator]
2011Scottish Jazz Award [Big Band]
2011Parliamentary Jazz Award [Large Ensemble/SNJO]
2010Professorship from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
2009Scottish Jazz Award [Big Band]
2009Scottish Jazz Award [Woodwind]
2008Honorary Doctorate of Letters Caledonian University, Glasgow
2008Heart of Jazz Award BBC Jazz Awards#2008
2002The British Jazz Awards [Best Tenor Saxophonist]
2000Scottish Arts Council [Creative Scotland Award]
2000Honorary Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland
2000Honorary Doctorate of the University Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh
1996Arts Foundation/Barclays Bank [Jazz Composition Fellowship Prize]
1996BT British Jazz Award
1992Wavendon All Music Awards [Services to Music]
1989British Jazz Award
1986BBC National Big Band Competition [Outstanding Musician Award]
1981Edinburgh Jazz Festival [Best Band]
1981Edinburgh Jazz Festival [Best Soloist]

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  1. "''Review quotes of Beast of Scotland'". Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  2. Small, Mark L. ""Tommy Smith – Scotland's Hardest-Working Jazzman" article in Berklee journal". Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  3. Kart, Larry (10 December 1985). "Great Vibes From Burton Get Boost From The Side". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  4. "Very Early into the Blue". Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  5. "Classical: Review". Glasgow Herald.
  6. "Classical: Review". Guardian.
  7. "Classical: Review". Herald.
  8. "Tommy Smith | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 22 September 2018.