At a time when the oral jazz tradition is in increasing jeopardy, you’ve got to admire Tommy Smith. Berklee schooled in the 1980s, the Scottish saxophonist had a promising career in the United States. He was a member of Gary Burton’s mid-1980s quintet, with the vibraphonist producing Step by Step the first of four records Smith released on Blue Note between 1988 and 1992 featuring an all star line-up including John Scofield, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. But after a few years in the US, Smith decided to return home to Scotland, where he’s since set up his own Spartacus label and released a series of fine albums, including another all-star session, Evolution (ESC, 2003), and Forbidden Fruit (Spartacus, 2005), with his Scottish quartet.
As strong as his own projects are, it’s possible that Smith’s greatest achievement may be his formation of the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2002. Featuring some of the country’s best up-and-coming jazz musicians, with ages as young as fifteen (rumour has it some were even younger) and as old as twenty-three, Smith has created a unique educational opportunity. Schooling is one thing; getting out on the bandstand and living it is another, and with regular performances at Henry’s, the hub of the Edinburgh jazz scene and festival appearances throughout the country, Smith has turned the TSYJO not only into a crack big band, but a source from which the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra recruits. Exploration is the TSYJO’s recorded debut, and if some of these players are still too young to shave, you’d never know it.
It may be a shame that Smith’s own playing which began as a unique confluence of Jan Garbarek and Michael Brecker but has long since evolved into something more personal isn’t represented, but it’s clear that the goal is to feature these young players, with nearly everyone getting some solo space during this fifty-minute set. Still, he recruits guest vibraphonist Joe Locke, who brings some added improvisational élan to a set that ranges from classic material by Duke Ellington (a hard-swinging “Cottontail”), Oliver Nelson (a rousing and vivacious “Hoe Down”) and Dizzy Gillespie (an ambling “Night in Tunisia”) to more modern compositions by Kenny Wheeler (the characteristically lyrical ballad, “Gentle Piece”), Fred Sturm (the boldly dramatic “Chronometry”) and Lars Jansson (the slightly knotty closer, “Now”). Throughout, Locke treads the fine line he always has, clearly rooted in the jazz tradition but bringing his own forward-looking approach, making every solo vivid and modernistic.
It’s a high-energy set that will come as no small surprise to big band fans expecting a youth-laden ensemble to be good, but more an exercise in education than invention. With outstanding charts played with the kind of dynamics, maturity and requisite mix of loose and tight you’d expect from a more seasoned group, the successes of Exploration will turn skeptics into believers.