Artist Profile: Walter Smith III (Tour Dates Jan 28 to Feb 9)


Track: Moranish from III (2010, Criss Cross Jazz). Walter Smith (tenor sax), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Jason Moran (piano) Joe Sanders (bass), Eric Harland (drums), Logan Richardson (alto sax).

Matthew Wright Writes:

Saxophonist Walter Smith III, born 1980, who begins his first UK tour as leader at Pizza Express, Dean Street on 28 January, has quickly forged a reputation as a lyrical and inventive tenor saxophonist. His music is characterised by a fluent, muscular tone and wide-ranging musical idiom, with blues as well as jazz influences.

He has developed a deep mutual understanding with some of the outstanding musicians of his generation, especially rhythm player Eric Harland, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Jason Moran. His 2010 album III (on Criss Cross Records), a combination of original compositions and new versions of tunes previously recorded with Moran and other band members, is his most recent recorded work. He’s working on new material for a fourth album, to be recorded in the summer.

This year’s tour band - Matt Stevens on guitar, Mike Janisch on bass, and Jamire Williams on drums - marks a change of personnel from III and many of Smith’s live performances since. The music played on tour, Smith says, “will be a lot of new stuff from everybody in the group as well as a good dose of music from my albums.” Until then, III is the latest body of Smith’s work available, so we discussed both III and his forthcoming plans.

Smith’s stylistic fluency and versatility are outstanding. The album’s opening track, ‘Working Title’, has a distinctively bebop sound, Smith’s writhing sax solo followed by an intricate harmonic dialogue with Akinmusire’s trumpet. The next, ‘Capital Wasteland’, adds a bluesy flavour, showing off the plangent, lyrical side of Smith’s tenor solo-playing.

The title, which I assumed to be political, turns out to have a culturally novel and musically interesting origin. “This song was kind of my personal soundtrack to a great Play Station 3 game called Fallout 3,” Smith explains. "The game revolves around making life-altering changes in a post apocalyptic world. Since many of the decisions that you make fall into a grey area on the morality scale, I used a chord that sounds neither major or minor to be the basis for the composition to kind of mirror that feeling of uncertainty.”

‘Moranish’ is perhaps the most complete statement of Smith’s approach to the collective jazz tradition. It refers to pianist Jason Moran, and again to Smith’s collaboration on Moran's 2009 project, In My Mind, itself a tribute to Thelonious Monk's 1959 Town Hall concert. The situation, says Smith, was “an extremely inspiring one because of the amount of vision that Moran brought to the project. He incorporated different images and interviews of Monk along with inventive versions of the original music in a way that didn’t feel forced or contrived. The concert had unexpected twists and turns from beginning to end. This tune was written with his re-working of Monk’s “'Crepuscule with Nellie' arrangement that used several parts of the original tune in different orders to create a very infectious vamp.”

Smith has spoken elsewhere about his enjoyment of the collective improvisation process, specifically on his favourite track on the album, ‘Goodnight Now’, a teasing, melancholy duo with Akinmusire played over shimmering rhythm. It’s clearly something he enjoying on his current tour, too.

“I think that it’s always important to let musicians be themselves in any musical situation. Sometimes I have something in mind during the composition process, but it may not translate comfortably for certain people or instruments. Being open to different interpretations and ideas gives the music a chance to work and not feel uncomfortable or boring. The composition is rehearsed but is open for improvisation throughout. Ideally, each performance of a piece should be different in some way.”

For critics prone to read too much into album and track titles, Smith is a valuable reminder of the realities of a musician’s working life. I wondered whether the album title, IIIwas a reference to his name, intended as a personal statement of some kind. The reality is more pragmatic. “III is part of my name,” Smith says, “but in this case I used it simply because it’s my third album and there wasn’t much time to debate album titles.”

The same applies to the track ‘Highschoolish’. I rate the track highly: with its repeated questioning saxophone phrase over a subtle, shifting rhythm, it has a wistful, yearning quality to it, as though he’s look back, fondly or regretfully, to a past experience. Again, though, the reality is more straightforward.

“Actually, this got its title because it sounds like something I would have written back when I was in high school,” Smith explains. “I wasn’t particularly proud of the composition and was just kind of experimenting with composing for chordless saxophone trio and was trying to make the harmonic structure really obvious so that it could be easily heard without piano or guitar playing the harmony.”

Education is, all the same, an important and rewarding part of Smith’s career: “I’ve always valued teaching as an important part of what I do. I have been doing a lot of artist in residence work, as well as masterclasses like the one we’ll be holding at Leeds College here. It’s a great way to share ideas with younger musicians and learn a lot about your own approach to playing music.”

After his extensive UK tour, Smith has a few gigs planned in France as well, where he has played often, and his album Live in France was released in 2009. He enjoys both the musical opportunities and cultural interaction of travel: “I perform mostly in Europe because of the festivals throughout the year as well as the large number of venues that operate year round. I love having the opportunity to travel to new places and experience different cultures and share music experiences with them.”

Noticing an upcoming Masterclass at Trinity Laban in Smith's diary (6th February), I asked him about the future health and prospects of jazz in the UK:

“I would say that things look pretty good in the UK,” he says. “I just played at the London Jazz Festival with Ambrose [Akinmusire] and people were going wild in there. Next door was [Robert] Glasper and that was completely sold out and then when we went to Ronnie’s for the radio broadcast there was a line down the block for it. The audience is there for sure. As for the younger generation, there is nothing to worry about. I personally know ten saxophone players that would embarrass me thoroughly, and they are all under 25, so if anything, it is inspiring me to try and practise more to catch up with them!”

www.WalterSmith3. com

Walter Smith III is on tour in the UK from 28th January until 9th February. This tour has received a grant from the PRS for Music Foundation. Full dates:

Jan 28 & 29: Pizza Express Dean Street, London
Jan 30: The Sage, Gateshead
Jan 31: Bonnington Theatre, Nottingham
Feb 1: Leeds College of Music, Daytime Masterclass Leeds
Feb 1: Wakefield Jazz Club, Wakefield
Feb 2: CBSO Center, Birmingham
Feb 3: Southport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Winter’s Weekend, Southport
Feb 6: Trinity College of Music, London
Feb 7: The Spin, Oxford
Feb 8: The Fleece, Boxford
Feb 9: Drill Hall Arts Center, Lincoln

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