Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock dynamic duo at The Verdict Brighton

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A happy accident of international flight scheduling has brought Tommy Smith and Brian Kellock to the Verdict on a Wednesday night; the walls are lined with the pictures of Blue Note greats, but Smith is the first living Blue Note artist to have played here. They’ve been promoting a duet album of venerable standards; tonight they start with Michel Legrand’s poignant ‘You Must Believe In Spring’ then up the pace with a boppish take on ‘I Want To Be Happy’. It’s immediately apparent that we’re witnessing two masters at work. Smith has a meltingly beautiful upper register on the ballad, and introduces an acerbic Rollins-esque bite on the faster number, which also demonstrates his impeccable sense of time. Kellock is supremely confident, endlessly inventive, capable of switching from a radical reharmonisation to a rollicking stride, evoking a multitude of pianists from Art Tatum onwards.

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The warmth and esteem between the two is plain to see in their comedy-scots banter between numbers, and they’re not afraid to toss musical jokes back and forth as they play. But this apparent light-heartedness never undermines the serious intent of the music. Smith plays ‘Stardust’ with an almost vaudevillian pathos in his suddenly wide vibrato before reaching upwards to draw astonishing, flute-like tones from the altissimo register. ‘Star Eyes’ features adroit multiphonics and an aggressive, post-Coltrane attack; ‘Armando’s Rumba’ demonstrates Kellock’s versatility of tone and touch. ‘The Summer Knows’ is given an almost straight rendition showcasing Smith’s peerless breath control, while ‘Moonlight In Vermont’ is pulled apart and rebuilt, with Smith playing into the piano to create a resounding echo chamber.

Smith tells us about his introduction to jazz thanks to his truck-driving father’s collection of Glenn Miller and Coleman Hawkins records. On ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ he channels Hawkins’ seductively gruff tone and unerring melodic sense, and manages to attain the emotional intensity that’s eluded generations of imitators. It’s perhaps the most impressive moment of the night, and seems to inspire Kellock to turn in a prodigious performance on the following ‘Taking A Chance On Love’. Though Smith now seems to be looking backwards rather than forwards for inspiration, this is no mere nostalgia turn; for all their playfulness, these guys are as serious as your life.

– Eddie Myer

– Photos by Rachel Zhang