Concert review by Nick Lea / Photograph courtesy of John Sargent

In the heart of the Lake District in the town of Ambleside there is a venue that hosts some of the finest jazz that the UK has to offer. However, Zeferrellis is more than just a venue with its 5-screen cinema, restaurant and café, and is a popular visitor attraction.

On this occasion, the reason for my visit was to hear saxophonist Tommy Smith and pianist Peter Johnstone play a duo concert in the venue that is Zeferrellis.

Big enough to accommodate a fair size audience, yet intimate enough to feel that you are close to the performance, as well as boasting excellent acoustics as demonstrated in the exhilarating music from these two master musicians.

Tommy Smith has played at the venue on several occasions, and each time has made use of the acoustics of the room. With his quartet that features Johnstone along with Calum Gourley on bass and drummer Sebastiaan De Krom playing music dedicated to John Coltrane, Smith chooses to play acoustically eschewing any amplification.

This ensures that the music is also partly dictated by the venue’s acoustics, and of course has the musicians adjusting their own playing to the needs of the group.

This was also true of the performance on Sunday 9 July when Tommy and Peter Johnstone took to the stage to present a duo performance that was something of a masterclass in communication, trust and empathy.

The resulting music was truly stimulating, exciting and quietly moving by turns in two sets that seem to pass by in the blink of an eye.

Each half of the concert was performed as a continuous set, the first consisting of eight songs played through without a pause. As one number led seamlessly to the next the music ebbed and flowed as the two musicians deep in concentration seemed to pull the music out of the air.

Coming on to the stage for the first set, Johnstone barely had time to seat himself at the piano before Smith’s tenor saxophone filled the venue with the opening notes of ‘Over The Rainbow’. From Tommy’s beautifully tentative opening phrases, the melody was swept up by the pianist in a delightful dialogue that would permeate throughout.

From the opening number Smith and Johnstone went straight into a swinging, with the saxophonist taking a gutsy and exuberant solo, to be followed by a piano solo in which Johnstone showed a command of his instrument and knowledge of his chosen idiom, past and present.

In a delightful ‘Nature Boy’ Smith reigned it in for a solo that was pensive and lyrical, while the pianist own improvisation was driven by an insistent bass line. Often it would appear as if the pianist was playing the straight man to the tenorist’s flights of fancy that could also switch in a heartbeat to gentle lyricism.

With his playing on ‘Round Midnight’, Smith wore his heart on his sleeve with his luxurious and full tenor sound harking back to Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves.

The second set was also presented as a continuous performance, and if anything appeared more varied and full of contrast than the first. The intuitive interplay between Smith and Johnstone was again a marvel to behold, and the use of dynamics and acoustics of the room exploited to even greater effect.

Opening the second half with ‘Celtic Warrior’, an original by Tommy, with dark brooding piano and the stately and considered tone of the tenor saxophone was reminiscent of Smith’s playing on his ‘Modern Jacobite’ recording from a few years back with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

This was followed with an exquisite reading of ‘My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose’ by Robert Burns. Simply beautiful and clearly spoken in the Scottish vernacular.

Another Smith original cropped up in the set with ‘El Nino’ from his album Blue Smith that was recorded for Linn Records and featured a quartet with Tommy and John Scofield. The saxophonist clearly enjoys playing this tune, and his solo was very different from his recorded version with Scofield.

In ebullient mood on Chick Corea’s ‘500 Miles High’, Smith built his from fragmentary phrases that eventually settled to become more flowing and expansive over Johnstone’s buoyant commentary.

The duo brought the set to a close with lovely reading of Jimmy Rowles’s ‘The Peacocks’, and when cajoled by an appreciative audience turned to a finger buster in a Johnny Griffin tune titled ‘Mill Dew’ and is based on Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.

We were duly informed by Tommy that the tune was fast and played at 350bpm which he likened to “having a heart attack on steroids”. The pair proceeded to give a blistering rendition of the tune with two amazing solos that were flowing and cohesive and bringing the concert to a most satisfying conclusion.