Sandy Brown Jazz

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The monthly Tea Break is a series of short, fun items in What's New Magazine
that also gives jazz musicians an opportunity to update us with what they are doing.


Tom Smith (Saxophone) - November 2020


Tom Smith



Tom Smith plays saxophone, clarinet and flute and even before graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in 2019 he was making a strong impression on the UK jazz scene, but then he did start playing jazz when he was eight.

Hailing from London, Tom has been the lead alto in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra until this year (2020).  He was twice finalist of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year programme both in 2014 and 2016, and in 2018 he won the Peter Whittingham Tom SmithDevelopment Award from Help Musicians UK.

In 2018 he was also the only UK musician selected to join the international Generations Festival Big Band in Switzerland, where he performed with Grammy Award winner Maria Schneider and American saxophonist and bandleader Donny McCaslin. He has performed and toured around the world including playing at festivals and venues such as the BBC Proms (Royal Albert Hall), Love Supreme Festival, Jazzinec Festival (Czech Republic), Generations Festival (Switzerland) and the Luxembourg ‘Blues ‘n Jazz Rallye’ and his arrangements have been broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night show and for Beverley Knight’s BK25 live orchestral album, performed at the Royal Festival Hall. Tom’s big band compositions and arrangements have also been performed by the London Gay Big Band, NYJO, and the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra where he currently plays lead alto.

As part of other bands Tom plays with Billy Marrows’ Octet; Jonny Mansfield’s eleven piece band Elftet; and the trio Gecko.

Tom has been taking part in a documentary film directed by Phil Nash – How To Make A Living In Jazz. A challenging documentary in itself, the Coronavirus epidemic has added another dimension to the subject. The initial publicity for the now deferred release of the film said: ‘Join 3 brilliant young musicians as they take the leap from full-time education to making a living doing what they love and have worked so hard for: Playing Jazz. They have been practicing and performing for up to 8 hours a day for more than half of their young lives  .... Hear from many of the leading lights in Jazz as they describe an art form in constant change. From Bandleaders, club owners, record labels and multi award winning artists, the art form has rarely been opened up for all to see in this behind the scenes, access all areas, film....’

In the meanwhile Gecko with Tom (saxophone and bass clarinet), Jonny Mansfield (vibes) and Will Barry (piano), are releasing their self-titled debut album this month (6th November).

Judging from my advanced review copy, the album is well worth hearing. Opening with Flamenco Carlos, the solo saxophone soon rides over a full soundscape from vibes and piano so that the absence of bass and drums goes unnoticed. Tom’s bass clarinet brings a mellow touch, opening and waltzing throughout the catchy John and Alex with a nice solo from Will Barry’s piano. House In The Clouds, another catchy, swinging number floats high with the piano beneath and with a touch of fun from the sax.

Listen to House In The Clouds




Tom Smith Gecko album


The romantic Every Day Epic is another catchy track and Anthem moves from solo piano to interaction between each of this empathetic trio. As you would expect from the title, Steampunk Tendencies ups the tempo a bit with the piano providing the underlying riff for the vibes and sax. Curiosity takes us down a different path; Jonny Mansfield’s vibes set the atmospheric mood for the saxophone’s lyrical theme and then pick up a lovely solo above the piano and following on with more good vibesrations – a track worth feeling. The next track has solo bass clarinet carrying a hesitant beginning that is built upon by the others and the title Bluish explains why this comes across more hopeful than a blues. We leave on Viking Dance, a gentle lyrical theme – did Vikings start dancing slowly and then trip the light fantastic to vibes, piano and sax? Possibly not, but they might have done if they had heard Gecko.


This is a very enjoyable album with some inviting themes and some fine solos and arrangements. It is well worth discovering and is available to download from Bandcamp when it is released on 6th November or you can pre-order here.




Tom stopped by for a Tea Break


Hi Tom, good to see you. It’s hard to believe that when we saw each other in February the London City Big Band was playing at the Spice of Life, that I was sitting well within reach of the sax section and in the break the bar was packed with mask-less people who hadn’t heard of ‘social distancing’ and the ‘rule of six’.  And here we are eight months later in this crazy Covid world ........Can I get you a tea or coffee?

Hey Ian, lovely to see you too! Wow that has to be one of the last gigs before lockdown, what a thought…I think a coffee for me please.


Milk and sugar?

I’ll have it black, au natural!


How have you been keeping? I notice you have kept busy. I particularly like your ‘House Party sax quartet’ video. Was that difficult to co-ordinate? How did you do it?

Well it’s been an uncertain time to put it mildly…on the whole I’ve been keeping well, I think like most musicians I’ve had ups and downs with motivation, but generally I’ve found that when I have a project or aim to keep me busy I feel a lot more fulfilled and ‘viable’. So I’ve tried to fill this year with fun projects, mostly doing remote recording from home, and one of those was giving myself the challenge of writing, recording and mixing a saxophone quartet track – it was a real journey, I learned a lot by doing it!


House Party




The first step was of course writing and arranging the piece for saxophone quartet, not a line up I had tried before. It was a fascinating experience to write something that could swing without a regular jazz rhythm section, I had to put myself in the shoes of a drummer to make sure there was enough going on to keep it buoyant.

For recording the song I wanted to do it in such a way that it didn’t feel like I was just recording myself alone in a room, I wanted it to feel like I was part of a real band playing all live in a room together! I set up a metronome part so that as I recorded each saxophone I could be sure to stay in perfect time, and I then recorded incredibly rough single take versions of each part. This meant that when I went to record final versions of each saxophone part I could actually place myself inside the ensemble – this made the whole experience a lot more organic! It also made it very easy to go back and edit any mistakes I made (believe me I had to fix a fair few things!)…Then learning the video editing process was a whole extra challenge on top, but I enjoyed learning how to do this, I think it’s going to be a very valuable skill for the future.

Putting together this track pushed me to finally form a big band and record a remotely recorded song with them, which is something I’ve wanted to do for YEARS!


Another thing you have done in lockdown is that great Girl From Ipenema video with Mike Higgins, Ted Carrasco and Terence Collie. How did that come about?

Terence Collie has been doing some pretty wonderful things over the lockdown, he’s put out a whole series of multitracked arrangements with a load of different musicians, and since gigs have become (sort of) possible, he’s worked so hard to put on live performances, having to navigate all the regulations and restrictions – hats off to him!!

I’ve performed with Terence a bunch of times at gigs that he’s organised and promoted in London, including a really fun duo concert at Café Yukari in Kew – a lovely intimate venue with a beautiful grand piano. I am very grateful he asked me to contribute to the music he has been putting together, and I’d keep a keen eye on whatever he does next, he always attracts massive audiences!


The Girl From Ipenema




The Light That Shines album


Have you been able to keep in touch with other musicians? Are people helping to support each other?

Yes, the community has really banded together this year, we’ve all been supporting each other and looking out for each other. Some musicians have been booking in jam sessions, some have been putting on gigs where possible within the rules, and there have been meet-ups and Zoom quizzes organised to make sure we don’t all go stir crazy.

As I mentioned earlier, the ability to do remote recording has been a really fantastic way to stay connected with my friends in a musical way. At the beginning of lockdown in April, the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra decided that we should do a remotely recorded album (‘The Light That Shines’, out now), and the experience of organising this and actually finally playing together again made me feel incredibly supported, and helped me feel connected to other musicians again.

Right now I am jumping on any opportunity to see my friends, see gigs, record music, etc. as I think we all need that experience of feeling supported and feeling connected to music.



Do you know what has happened to Philip Nash’s film that featured you ‘How To Make A Living In Jazz’? Has the release been put on hold because of Covid-19?

Yes, this has been a really fun project to be involved with! Philip has been talking to a whole host of jazz musicians from different backgrounds about how it is that the jazz life works, and how you can turn it into a career. I think this will give a lot of people a fantastic insight into the life of a working musician! It has also followed some of the projects and pieces of work I’ve been involved with over the last few years, including my debut album recording. Keep your eyes peeled, but I’m hoping it will be ready for release next year

It was initially set to be released this year, but with Covid-19 hitting when it did, the release got delayed. This has turned out to have a silver lining in that the documentary is now going to have a segment in it which deals with how musicians have had to react to the pandemic. We have recently filmed some more interviews and Philip has spoken to a whole host of UK musicians to hear their experiences, and it will be so interesting to hear how different musicians have reacted to the situation. The documentary is going to be all about how to remain adaptable and survive, so I think Philip is in the perfect position to record how we’ve all dealt with things!

I am also looking forward to recording and collaborating with some of the writing for the score for the documentary! It will feature myself, Benjamin Appiah and Christos Stylianides, friends of mine and fabulous musicians also featuring in the documentary, and piano maestro James Pearson.



Here's an early trailer.






Chocolate Brownies




Here, I’ve got some biscuits in the tin – Hob Nobs, chocolate digestives ... help yourself ... or my wife has made these sugar-free brownies ... I’d like to think brownies were named after Clifford Brown, or that Brownie had a particular hankering for them ... I guess we’ll never know.

Ooooh I couldn’t possibly resist homemade brownies, what a treat!!







When we talked last you suggested I check out Gecko and here we are with you releasing your first album on the Basho label. I’ve got the trailer here on YouTube. Who chose the name Gecko and where did that come from?

Yes I am thrilled to be finally getting this album out there! So I’ve always had a working title in my head for this band from the first moment I came up with the idea. I thought that as the band doesn’t have a drummer I could call it ‘Get Your Kit Off’….but on reflection I thought maybe we wouldn’t get any radio play with a name like that! Jonny Mansfield then had the fab idea of turning it into an acronym – GYKO, then that morphed into Gecko. I love that it also fits with the British tradition of naming jazz bands after animals (Polar Bear, Dinosaur…).  


Gecko album trailer





It is an unusual line-up with you on sax, Jonny Mansfield on vibes and Will Barry on piano, and congratulations on winning the Peter Whittingham Award that has helped you to fund it. I see that Marlbank has already given the album a nice review although they describe it as ‘chamber jazz’. In a way I think that’s a shame – do you think it is difficult putting labels on jazz as they can conjure preconceived ideas? I see you have described what the band play as ‘improvised music with an immensely joyful heart, dipping into the areas of folk music, percussive Latin music, free jazz and minimalism’ do you think that’s nearer the mark?

I agree with you, I think giving labels to music is fraught with danger – on the one hand it’s helpful to steer the right audience to music they’re likely to enjoy, but on the other it can create assumptions about the content and the character of the music in question. 'Chamber jazz' is a label that I think is loaded with negative connotations! It suggests the music is polite, mild-mannered, stuffy and suited only for concert halls or churches. I think Gecko is none of these things - this music is raw, unapologetic and filled with rhythm, dialogue and energy, I want people to experience it and give their own label to it! Just because there’s no drummer it doesn’t mean that the music is un-rhythmic.


Perhaps it is best if people can just listen and make up their own minds. Here you are in a great video from The Vortex playing This Is It – is that one of your compositions?

‘This Is It’ is a piece that I wrote inspired by the music of Kenny Garrett. He’s long been an influence on me and my playing, his saxophone sound and improvisations are stunning and fantastic, but his composing has also been a huge influence. He writes fantastically catchy melodies, they have such a perfect balance of simplicity and complexity, and they reach across so many genres. They are also perfectly built for improvising and creating dialogue within a band. ‘This Is It’, is my attempt to capture some of this simplicity, and the title is about being present in the moment and not being caught up in your head.


This Is It





Is the Gecko album just being released digitally at the moment?

Yes indeed, the album is available on Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify from the 6th November, we may eventually release CDs but for the moment we are sticking to digital!


It is only a couple of years ago that you were selected to join the international Generations Festival Big Band in Switzerland, where you played with Grammy Award winner Maria Schneider. What was that experience like? 

That was a very unreal experience; the Generations Festival happens in the town of Frauenfeld in Switzerland bi-annually and brings together a big band of musicians under the age of 30 selected from around the world to perform at the final concert of the festival. When I took part there were phenomenal musicians from Germany, America, Japan, Spain, Italy, and all sorts of other countries, none of whom I’d met before! We spent a week rehearsing Maria’s music, working with Donny McCaslin’s band, and going to watch gigs every night of the week – Ari Hoenig’s trio played 4 nights in a row and I went to every single one! There were a lot of inspirational teachers and I felt completely rejuvenated musically by the experience.


Maria Schneider

Would you say that Maria has had an influence on your music?

She’s an influence unlike anyone else! I’ve loved her music ever since I got into big band and the more I have listened to it and studied it the more I’ve loved it and the more I’ve got out of it. She has mastered the art of writing moving and simple melodies, with a deceptive complexity which only reveals itself after 5 or 6 listens! I have often tried to imitate her orchestration in my own arrangements; her trombone writing in particular I think is some of the richest and most sonorous of the entire big band canon and I would love to be able to understand how she does it. I am also amazed at how she has managed to make an entire career out of being a jazz composer – she’s one of a small handful of musicians who have managed to make that work!


If she were to drop in for a Tea Break, what would you ask her?

I would ask her what she does when she doesn’t feel inspired. I would ask her if she’s got any strategies for forcing yourself to be inspired, I think learning how to get the juices flowing is perhaps the most important skill I could learn!



We can warch a video of Maria and her Orchestra playing My Ideal in Vienna in 2008 - perhaps that will help ...





What plans have you got in mind for post-Covid? Presumably you would like to tour with Gecko and the album?

My main plan is to jump back into performing and playing gigs as enthusiastically as possible, I have missed it so much and it will make me feel normal again! I would love to tour the album with Gecko, we’ve had to cancel a number of gigs we were meant to play this October, but I am hoping to reschedule these and get on the road as soon as we are allowed. I also am thinking about some other projects I would like to pull together, other musicians I would like to play with, maybe some thoughts about what I might do for a second album…


How about your big band? Do you have any other plans for that?

Well I am hoping to record some more remotely co-ordinated songs with the big band. It’s very rare to have access to all of these fabulous musicians, so I am applying for funding to record some more music over the next year. I would also very much like to play some gigs with this band live and in person! 


Here's Tom's Big Band playing a remote Swansea Uproar featuring Alex Garnett, Alex Ridout and Trevor Mires:





Do you fancy another quick coffee before you go, Tom? Perhaps you could choose something for us to listen to while I put the kettle on – something you have been listening to recently, perhaps? 

Go on, one more coffee for the road then. Here’s a fantastic live track by the Cannonball Adderley Sextet from the album ‘Nippon Soul’, recorded in Tokyo. Cannonball is one of my favourite saxophonists and this track is 4 minutes of absolutely storming playing, it makes me so so happy!


On its way. Thanks for dropping by, Tom. Good luck with the album, it’s certainly one people should hear and enjoy. Let’s hope we can meet up again at one of your gigs soon.


Cannonball Adderley and Easy To Love.





Click here for Tom's website. Click here for details of Tom's Gecko album.


Tom Smith



Utah Teapot


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