Skip to content
Tommy Smith

"Torah" – a strange thing for an atheist to say – but I love it

I was surprised on Friday at the SNJO gig to see a new CD on sale.

“Torah” by The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra featuring Tommy Smith isn’t “officially” released till the end of April, so finding it for sale on a trestle table at the last gig was a real added bonus (though a very low key “launch”).

A “jazz suite” based on the first five books of the Torah/Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) which form a common bond between Christianity, Judaism and Islam – it’s an adventurous task.

What’s interesting, according to the sleeve notes, is that it was written originally for Joe Lovano and first performed in 2000 by the SNJO and Lovano. It’s nice here though to hear Tommy firmly centre stage and soloing so much. If anything he seems, in the past, to have placed his own playing on hold for the greater good of the orchestra, so it’s nice to hear him up front for once.

Obvious similarities with Stan Tracey’s “Genesis” – but I’d have to say that Stan’s writing is a bit more “Ellingtonian” and the tone is also predominantly upbeat. While with “Torah”, though obviously a jazz piece, there are hints of classical influences and there are passages that are quite dark and brooding (but then, I suppose, a vengeful, wrathful god does a fair bit of “smiting”). Likewise there are a few sections where the sax sounds positively dreamlike and romantic (fair bit of “begetting” goes on as well I suppose).

I’ve listened to this a lot since Friday and I have to say it’s one of the best Tommy Smith records I’ve heard. It’s difficult to imagine what it would have sounded like when Lovano did play it, because the sound here is so recognisably Smith. Sadly, I can’t find anything about the recording on either Tommy’s web site or that of the SNJO, also I can’t find any press releases to accompany the release. Could it be that it was intended to record with Lovano? The recording was done in January 2010, but Lovano suffered two broken arms in late 2009 (not very good if you play sax for a living).

With a lot of sax players it’s all to easy to describe them by comparison – “Oh, he sounds like Stan Getz”, or  “he sounds a lot like John Coltrane there”. Well, I think Tommy Smith has transcended that – others sound like him!

There’s a section of Leviticus that’s very similar to the playing on his album Into Silence. Strangely the solo ends, just before the orchestra re-entre with the sax playing the opening line of  “When You Wish Upon A Star”. A musical coincidence, or is Smith likening god to Jiminy Cricket??

Interesting that this was written in 2000 but not recorded till now. Post 2001 I know a lot of artists were trying to come to terms with the whole Christian/Judaism/Islam/conflict “thing”. Whatever the delay, I’m glad he did get round to recording this.

Best not treated as five separate “tracks” but rather like one long complex piece. And, I imagine like the book, best taken in the proper order – not one for the “shuffle” button.

I’d have to say that if I’d been subjected to this “blindfolded” without knowledge of the music’s themes, names or influences I’d still be mightily impressed. As it is I do know what it’s supposed to be about – and it’s a strange thing for an atheist to say – but I love it.

There are two characters in popular fiction who are omnipresent, magnificent and in turns wrathful, benevolent, vengeful and forgiving. One is the aforementioned “god” –  the other is Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel.

I’m reading the later on the train just now and this music suits it well!

Categorized: Press Reviews