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A little distance: 2 gigs – Tommy Smith and Babelfish

December 1, 2018

I decided I hadn’t time to set down anything about a pair of interestingly intense gigs this week. But a few days later, and after heading back from Bristol to Belfast, I find I’m still thinking about them on Saturday night. So a few thoughts.

Both were in a jazz area, if you want labels, but Tommy Smith much more sensibly labelled thus. The Scottish tenor player was born in 1967, so last year was his 50th, and the half-centenary of the early death of one of his great inspirations, John Coltrane.

The result was a well-received project where he plays Coltrane, in every sense of the word. The project is still touring, and Nod Knowles brought it to Bath’s Widcombe Social Club on Tuesday, Smith playing unamplified in the neat space with Peter Johnstone on piano, Sebastiaan De Krom on drums and the brilliant Calum Gourlay on bass. The Coltrane quartet instrumentation, then, and early-to-mid Coltrane is the sound – more early for the drums, mostly, apart from a couple of hair-raising One Up, One Down style drums’n’tenor excursions, and mid- for the rest, especially piano which is faithfully Tyneresque for the duration.

50 years on, this is still demanding music, and on the whole they do it proud. It’s demanding on the players, too, especially the sax, and Smith is certainly in the right zone. He digs into Resolution, Dear Lord, and the rest as if they’ve never been played before.

But they have of course. And there’s just the slightest aesthetic reservation about the “tonight Matthew, I’ll be John Coltrane” approach. It’s rousing stuff, and there are transcendent moments when Smith successfully conjures Coltrane the great ecstatic and you forget everything else. Much of the time, though, you can’t forget the originals (why would you?). It feels good, but there’s a nagging sense of risking the unappealing fate of being trapped in re-creation (see Alan Skidmore’s late career for a discouraging example of where that leads).

It must still be incredibly difficult to do well, needless to say. To play convincingly in this style you must have to study and practice as obsessively as Coltrane did, and achieve a similar level of execution. And this project gets top marks for that. The frequent piano solos were perhaps a bit frantic under the pressure of all that history, and there was sometimes a feeling of a drop in intensity when Smith laid out – but then the original ‘Trane quartet was like that too. People should definitely do this – to give us a taste of what it might have been like to see the original, to honour the ancestors and, to judge by the two youngsters in the front row, to inspire the next generation to explore one of the great masters. Then – a feeling crystallised by Gourlay’s rivetting, freely-improvised bass solo that introduced the last number – they should probably move on.

The next night at St George’s was utterly different, but Brigitte Beraha and Barry Green’s excellent Babelfish were full of quiet intensity in their own way. (The evening probably felt more intense because the gig followed a remarkable poetry recitation by Alice Oswald in the Wills Building up the hill an hour earlier – threatening high culture overload.)

This is filed under jazz insofar as it’s genre-free music. Beraha can nail a standard like Chasing Rainbows, or give a stunning rendition of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. There’s poetry too, Salley Gardens, a folk song drawn from Yeats, and some oddly pleasing “cubist poetry” texts from France. And there are plenty of other originals. One was pleasingly Jobim-like which prefigured a Jobim tune to close the second set. The others were more distinctive, drawing on the co-leaders’ literary enthusiasms for inspiration, and taking lots of different, unexpected directions.

Altogether a memorably creative evening. Beraha is superb whether singing straight or launching into into snarly-screechy-growly freedom when the mood takes her. Green complements her brilliantly, and shines in the piano trio interludes, and Paul Clarvis on drums and Chris Laurence on bass matched them every step of the way. It’s fascinating to see the four – each of them a favourite performer in other contexts – come together in this band and do something different, and fruitfully exploratory.

The sound, especially that voice, was wonderful in St George’s, as you’d expect. A pretty much flawless evening’s music – thougb it would have been nice to see a bigger crowd for all that talent. Still they’re booked for the Bristol Jazz festival next year, so the rest of you have another chance to appreciate them in March.


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