Tony Smith Interview
How about this as an idea for a biopic. Born in Poole, Dorset, our subject moves to Canada at the age of five after his jazz-loving father – a professional boxer from Yorkshire – decides to seek better prospects for his young family in Toronto. He starts guitar lessons at 15, gets heavily into Led Zep and the Floyd, but also has an ear for his dad’s jazz collection (Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Sinatra). He undertakes three years of musical studies at Toronto’s Humber College of Music during which time, in addition to learning the subtleties of reharmonization, upper structure triads and pentatonic harmony, he also frequents Toronto’s jazz clubs where he checks out the likes of Zoot Sims, Barney Kessell, Herb Ellis, Red Norvo, Al Cohn and James Moody, often backed up by excellent house rhythm sections. Upon graduating he feels drawn to London, so he ups sticks, rocks up, meets the people, does the jam sessions, records a couple of albums and before you know it is working his ass off as Roy Ayers’ guitarist of choice. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tony Smith.
Currently dividing his time between his own project Tony Smith & Co and his touring work with the king of the vibes, Smith’s star is very much in the ascendant right now. Just back from a month’s tour with Roy, in May the guitarist will be launching his new album Loyalty with gigs at the 606 and Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club (see www.tonysmithguitar.com for details). Following two solo albums on the Jazzizit label, Big Cat (1995) and The Runner (1997), plus an album of more soul-based material co-written with singer Ola Onabule (Backlands, released in 2003), the new album represents a serious raising of the bar in the Smith discography. It follows on quite naturally from the more overtly live feel that the guitarist was aiming for on The Runner which, unlike the prolonged gestation period of the debut, was recorded in just two days at the BBC. In addition to recognising that his best moments as a guitarist are in a live environment (“I think it’s a prerequisite for me now”), rather than endless overdubbing followed by needless tinkering, with Loyalty Smith sees a particular line of development beginning to emerge in his music.
“I found myself doing more and more really hard-edged funk gigs, especially with Roy. The idea that I was going to play jazz with acoustic bass was getting further and further away – and the idea of playing more funk was getting more attractive. I think I pushed it in that electric/fusion thing. It just seemed a natural development. I seem to be getting more of a response, and further with my band, being more electric and hard-edged.”
Featuring a selection of London’s finest – Jason Rebello, Jerry Brown, Troy Miller and Dean Mark included – there’s an absolute consanguinity of mind and unity of purpose in terms of the direction in which Smith is pushing the music on Loyalty. On working with Rebello, he comments: “What I love about playing with Jason is that he completely understands where I’m coming from, completely understands what fusion is all about.” His thoughts on playing with the ace pianist could easily have been made about the group dynamic as a whole; lead by Smith’s dynamic soloing and in-the-pocket comping, the playing throughout the album is uniformly excellent.
Asked what he considers the single most important thing he’s learnt from playing with Roy, Smith answers in a heartbeat: ‘Absolutely to play the way I’m playing.” And it’s this self-belief in what he’s doing – the energy and the honesty of it – that has ensured he’s never baulked at using the ‘f’ word when it comes to describing his music. The guitarist professes to have “released myself from the burden of judging. I’ll let other people put me in whatever hole they want to put me in. You could drive yourself crazy if you worried about being pigeonholed.” But if the equation jazz + rock energy = fusion holds up for the guitarist, he turns pale at the thought of anyone laying the smooth jazz tag on him. “All you have to do is listen to a smooth jazz record and then put Loyalty on. Smooth jazz is, by and large, energyless and programmed. I think smooth jazz hijacked this kind of fusion, ironed it out, sucked all the blood out of it and put it in a jar, and sold it to people who don’t know what music is.”
Perhaps because Humber College was envisaged on a much smaller, more intimate scale than the likes of Berklee – thus perhaps avoiding the hothouse, competitive environment of its US counterpart – the guitarist managed to forge a very recognisable signature sound early on in his career, a sound which he identifies as “coming from the blues. I love jazz guitar players – and that’s my approach intellectually regarding the notes that I choose – but the blues brought the guitar to life in a way that other genres don’t. I’m really talking specifically about the guitar here, because I do think that it sounds great when you’re bending notes and with a bit of dirt on it. The Muddy Waters blues sound: to me that really speaks. I just like that kind of sound and want to bring that out of the guitar. I’m quite aggressive with it. For me the guitar comes to life with that bending of strings – there’s a physicality to the thing.”
Courtsey: Jazzwise Magazine – April 2006; Used with Permission from Tony Smith Management