Everything about Karma, Tommy Smith’s new group and album, is good. Produced to an attention-grabbing level of bash and pop, Karma is exciting, and the veteran Scottish saxophonist never lacks for inspiration. Whether Smith is playing the Japanese bamboo flute known as the shakuhachi—on the lovely, initially pensive “Sun”—or blasting tenor sax strut-funk on the title track, he’s driving. Smith wrote all 10 tunes, and they’re often tricky with abrupt shifts in meter.
The material requires a stop-on-a-dime band, which Smith has in keyboardist Steve Hamilton, bassist Kevin Glasgow and drummer Alyn Cosker. Some tracks evoke windswept moors, like the dignified and faintly Metheny-esque “Body or Soul” and “Land of Heroes,” a lovely ballad featuring Smith at his most persuasive. The man can play long, naked lines; he can also pack his solos. But Smith never forfeits feeling for technique. The influences span Irish folksong and heavy metal. Hard-edged but not abrasive, the CD startles like jazz but feels like rock. Other cuts, like the breakneck “Projection” and “Tomorrow,” a hot tarantella, attest to the virtuosity Smith’s work demands. His bandmates are clearly younger than Smith, but their work is anything but immature.
The liner notes say these tracks were sequenced purposefully, to illustrate different aspects of karma, the sum total effect of a person’s life, and indeed, listening to the disc from beginning to end seems to tell a story. But each cut also works on its own—no need to feel guilty for jumping around. In Karma, Smith and his fresh young group have crafted a hard-rocking jazz CD that is deeply savvy but never weary.