Review: Tommy Smith – Spirit of Light, St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh

“Spirit of Light,” a major new composition by Tommy Smith, got its Edinburgh performance tonight in the impressive space of St Mary's Cathedral. Performing this innovative work along with Tommy Smith were members of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, distinguished jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and critically acclaimed vocal group Cappella Nova.
If, like me, you know Tommy Smith best for his high profile as a jazz musician and founder/director of the SNJO, then this work clearly demonstrates that these achievements are simply facets of a composer/musician with a deep interest and a deep understanding of music far outside one area of performance. For some this may come as a big surprise, and I think it fair to say that “Spirit of Light” was met with a mixed reception at times, and part of that may be down to some people expecting the Tommy Smith/SNJO that they have experienced in the past.

For myself though, this performance was what I had hoped for (the venue alone should have given everyone a big clue) and I found this to be an amazing body of work combining humanitarian poetry and a strong traditional seasonal Christmas theme carefully set to music that at times was a fusion of sacred music meeting the music of George Gershwin, and all of this somehow carefully composed to take into account the acoustic space of the Cathedral itself (this work is being performed in other Scottish cathedrals too).

This story arc utilising words from people as diverse as St Francis of Assisi to Meister Eckhart to Liz Lochhead performed over an 11 song cycle combined perfectly for me my own personal love of the sounds of jazz, The Great American Songbook of the mid 20th century and sacred music (particularly medieval and plainsong), and there really are no spaces other than places of worship where everything would have been in its correct acoustic setting. Words, music and special spaces have a power of their own, and perhaps many of us have forgotten that power a little in our modern world. The writers and performers of early sacred music clearly understood this powerful combination, and with “Spirit of Light” Tommy Smith is clearly demonstrating that he too understands the power of all three together.

“Spirit of Light” is a complex and multi layered work exploring many areas of composition, tonality and modulation along the way, and this review based on only one performance of the work is only at best skimming the surface…there is so much more to explore here in much greater depth.

I hope this work (this was only its third full public performance) sees a far wider performance schedule in the coming years, and for myself a re-assessment of Tommy Smith as a composer whom I will have to start thinking of in the same terms as people like Aaron Copeland and Philip Glass.

Five stars: * * * * *