Tommy Smith and Courtney Pine

This article is from 2007.

Dear John

Kenny Mathieson finds two British sax greats paying tribute to Coltrane

Who would have thought it? The appearance of British jazz’s two leading saxophonists on the same stage shouldn’t really raise eyebrows, but given the very different trajectories that their respective careers have taken since both emerged as stars in the making in the mid-80s, the possibility seemed remote.

Both players were part of the so-called ‘British jazz revival’ of that time, when the music suddenly became fashionable again. The focus on jazz pushed a number of performers into the limelight, including a group of young black players in London led by Courtney Pine, and the likes of Tommy Smith in Scotland and Andy Sheppard in Bristol.

Some of the players elevated to star status in that media-stoked frenzy have faded away, but both Smith and Pine have gone on to build substantial careers, albeit down quite different paths.

Tommy Smith has stayed resolutely with jazz, developing an individual voice in both his own music and his directorship of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, while Courtney Pine has moved out to a broader audience in more commercial fashion, dipping into funk, soul, reggae and drum & bass along the way.

So what has finally brought these two disparate musicians together? The answer is John Coltrane. Whatever the differences in their musical paths, both are united by a devotion to the master, and this concert will revolve around their interpretations of Coltrane’s music.

This is the 40th anniversary of Coltrane’s death from liver failure, and his legacy provides a fitting meeting place for the two saxophonists. Smith has already led the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in a Coltrane tribute at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in June, and that project was the original inspiration for this event.

‘It all started when I was a guest on Courtney’s radio show last year,’ explains Smith. ‘Afterwards I asked him if he would be interested in playing in the SNJO concert. He was really into it, but I moved away from the idea of having guest soloists with the big band – it really adds to the cost of the gig, and it means that we have to cut back elsewhere at other times of the year, and there are enough really good soloists in the band anyway.’

Instead, they began to develop the idea of a quintet, including the ticklish question of personnel. After vetting a series of piano players, they settled on South African expatriate Bheki Mseleku as the man to take the McCoy Tyner role, with Alyn Cosker providing essential drive and energy on drums.
When we spoke the bassist was still under consideration. Smith admits that he would have liked to bring in New Yorker Reginald Veal, but the budget did not quite stretch that far. The likely contender is Michael Janisch, the London-based American bass player in Smith’s own quartet.

The SNJO concert will be fresh in the memory when the saxophonists take the stage in Edinburgh, while Courtney Pine led his own Coltrane tribute tour back in 2002. His debt to Coltrane has always been evident, and when I first interviewed him 20 years ago, he made it explicit even then. ‘When I started playing jazz,’ he told me, ‘there were certain things that really appealed to me, especially that Coltrane-influenced high-energy thing, and that was what I went into first.’

John Coltrane has remained an audible influence in his playing through all the subsequent shifts in his stylistic approach. As Tommy acknowledged, it is a connection that will provide common ground for these two contrasting jazz stylists. ‘Courtney and I are both John Coltrane disciples, even though he has gone down one direction with his music, and I’ve taken another. He still has Trane in his heart, and I always do. Some people might see us as rivals in some way, but we get on well, and it should be good fun.’

Queen’s Hall, Clerk Street, 0131 473 2000, 28 Jul, 8.30pm, £17.50 (£15).

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