Tommy Smith Quartet, at Eden Court, Inverness.

Tommy Smith is a genuine living legend, and holds his own with the best jazz players in the world.

Here’s some background. He was a precociously talented Edinburgh teen who won a scholarship to Berklee in the US. He lived Stateside, recorded for Blue Note, then came home to Scotland and recorded a series of marvellous albums for Linn. He started his own label, Spartacus, and continues to make consistently great music.

His albums run the gamut of contemporary jazz in a range of different settings – knotty ensemble playing, bluesy class, European spaciousness and all points in between. The musicians he’s worked with reads like a jazz ‘who’s who’ and stands as a testament to his world-class reputation.

No less significant is his teaching and his role in encouraging and developing younger players. He founded the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, and they’ve released a number of fine albums. (Their extended take on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a particular favourite).

The gig in Eden Court is on the back of his recent quartet release ‘Embodying the Light’, which celebrates the music of John Coltrane. Coltrane’s shadow looms large over every saxophone player. His style evolved from early bebop to the distinctive restless style of the ‘classic’ quartet through to his final free recordings. The music from the ‘classic quartet’ that recorded ‘Crescent’ (my favourite Coltrane album), and ‘A Love Supreme’ through to the imposing ‘Ascension’ and beyond is not to be approached lightly. It’s difficult, overwhelmingly intense at times. It demands the listener’s full attention, party music it aint! But there are riches enough to last a hundred lifetimes for those willing to dive in with open ears.

Smith’s quartet is double-bassist Calum Gourlay, drummer Sebastiaan De Krom and young pianist Pete Johnstone. Smith told London Jazz News  “I got in touch with a few fantastic musicians, who have great personal spirits that I wanted to share some important music with. We got together on the day of the recording at Castlesound near Edinburgh and set forth to record the music of Coltrane. Importantly, we didn’t rehearse before the date, as I wanted the interaction to be as special as your first kiss.” The band are a revelation and set about tackling this gigantic music with gusto at Eden Court.

The gig opened with ‘Resolution’ from ‘A Love Supreme’. A solo from double bassist Gourlay, then that familiar riff which sends shivers up every jazzer’s spine. Smith stated the theme then left pianist Johnstone to an extended solo that increased in complexity, with a percussive left hand that echoed McCoy Tyner’s approach to chords and rhythm. He’s the player in the band I knew least about and he’s superb throughout the whole gig. Smith rejoined later with a solo in the spirit of the Coltrane original but with an individual stamp too. His saxophone sound is warmer than Coltrane’s iron tone, but the music is no less special.

There are many highlights to follow. ‘Dear Lord’ is gorgeous and showcased Smith’s soft, caressing sound. Smith’s own ‘Embodying the Light’was a cracker, and reminded me a little of ‘Bessies’s Blues’ from ‘Crescent’. The tune featured brilliant piano from Johnstone – spare and spacious to begin with then moving up a gear. Gourlay had a fine solo, demonstrating why he’s at the heart of many great jazz bands. A sly Smith quote from ‘Resolution’ on his solo, then a fizzing tussle with the drummer De Krom. ‘Transformation’ for me was the highlight of the gig. Johnstone’s solo was pure class, patiently but insistently circling and working the melody.

‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ is from late-period Coltrane, and headed into free territory. De Krom had a big role here, a torrent of sound which acted as a sparring partner for Smith’s boiling and ferocious playing. This piece, and Smith’s own ‘Embodying the Darkness’ came closest to the core of what makes Coltrane’s music distinctive. It was total sound, restless and primal. The music had a searching, questing quality, spooling through melodies and fragments of melodies. It was immersive and almost physical in its impact.

Many players tackle Coltrane’s music and impress with technical prowess, but miss the emotional current that makes it so singular. This quartet really tapped that vein, meditating on the source material, but also using it as a springboard to move into something distinctive and original.

A stunning gig.

Read our review of the forthcoming Olle Howell Gig

Ollie Howell Quartet for Nairn gig