ALBUM TITLE: Tommy Smith
PERFORMER: Tommy Smith (ss, ts, bells)
CATALOGUE NO: STS 003
Charlie Parker, when once asked about his religion, said, ‘I’m a devout musician,’ and, in a sense, all art – and particularly music – is a religious act because it has to do with the artist’s relationship to the universe and is often a celebration of life and humanity.
These thoughts are provoked by saxophonist Tommy Smith’s audacious and profound solo album recorded live in the Hamilton Mausoleum in Scotland last October. This cavernous building has a vast observatory-shaped dome and its vibrant acoustic has the longest natural echo in Europe (15 seconds), which at times can add an orchestral-like background to the music here.
Smith visited the building to absorb the atmosphere and acoustic, but then allowed the idea of the project to incubate for over a year before tackling it. In the end, he recorded over 60 pieces inspired by his view of the constellations above the dome, but chose just 25 of them for this album: two folksongs, three 20th-century ballads, five medieval chants and 15 improvisations.
From the opening ‘Scream’, which splinters the silence, a sense of the numinous pervades the album, and Smith’s playing throughout is intensely focused and eloquent. ‘Oran na Politician’, a traditional South Uist folksong about the Whisky Galore saga, is given a jaunty soprano sweet-and-sad outing.
Smith’s inspiration never seems to falter and he never over-plays (he said it took much courage to know when not to play in the resonant acoustic). ‘Tibi Christe splendor patris’ is given a profoundly tender and quiet treatment on tenor, with pauses and sweetly compassionate high notes.
He makes ancient and modern music sound strangely compatible and in his ecstatic renderings makes Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ and even Rodgers and Hart’s ‘My Romance’ sound like prayers. This is a unique album.