Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra – Effervescence; Bill Evans/Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Beauty and the Beast (Spartacus)
A shining example of the benefits of arts funding, Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith receives financial aid from the Scottish Arts Council to nurture a long-running, musically advanced youth big band that functions as a farm team for jazz bands throughout the U.K. Smith, an international performer with an impressive résumé as a leader and a sideman, has an ear for talent.
The nonprofit TSYJO is not your garden-variety band of teenagers-to-early-20somethings with potential. This cohesive big band blows with an abandon generally reserved for seasoned players. Not many young saxophone sections can nail a finger-buster like Dizzy’s “Things to Come” in sync with consistently powerhouse brass and a groove-friendly rhythm section.
Smith wisely focuses on tasteful revamps of classic repertoire. Woody Herman’s “Apple Honey,” Benny Golson’s “Blues March,” Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” and “Bud Powell,” and Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti” cover a wide swath of jazz history. Contemporary funk and rock are also represented via the original “Tam O’ Shanter,” penned by section trumpeter Sean Gibbs. A quantity of soloists improvise comfortably, displaying obvious influences while forging their individual voices.
A number of these young men and women will progress to the all-star Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, a smoker of a professional big band. On a new live recording, the SNJO recruits soprano and tenor saxophonist Bill Evans to play what must be one of the most punishing of feature soloist roles. Smith’s seven-part suite, titled Beauty and the Beast, is a beautifully written, progressive tour de force. This 50-plus-minute piece was originally composed for — and performed by — Smith’s mentor, saxophonist Dave Liebman.
Evans rarely takes the horn from his mouth, alternating lengthy improvisatory vamps with the written lead over the full ensemble. If Smith’s composition depicts the two faces of mankind, the beast is certainly prevalent in this bear of a big band outing. Evans, a player with enormous chops who leans toward conservatism, has no choice but to forsake reservation and ride the veritable pipeline.
This recording may well be the best Evans you’ll hear since he was a kid under fire in Miles Davis’ band. Whether performing lyrically or explosively, Evans takes it to the limit, living up to the Coltrane-esque expectations of his playing that have, at times, not been met. In a nutshell, he kills it.
— James Rozzi