Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III‘s third studio album, and fourth overall release as a leader, comes out this week. It’s called Still Casual, in a nod to his 2005 debut, Casually Introducing…. That album came in a sleeve that mimicked Sam Rivers‘s Fuschia Swing Song, but Smith is no mere imitator of 1960s forebears. His sound is frequently mellow without ever being soporific, and he can muster plenty of bite when he feels like it; contrast the four-minute studio version of “Blues” from the debut, which recalls Branford Marsalis‘s stripped-down The Dark Keys, with the fully blasted-off 3-minute version from 2011’s Live in Paris.
Last year, Smith was part of the Next Collective, a group that also featured alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, guitarist Matt Stevens, keyboardists Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jamire Williams (plus a pair of guest appearances from trumpeter Christian Scott). Their album Cover Art featured jazz interpretations of pop, R&B and indie rock songs: Drake‘s “Marvin’s Room,” Kanye West and Jay-Z‘s “No Church in the Wild,” D’Angelo‘s “Africa,” Meshell Ndegeocello‘s “Come Smoke My Herb,” Pearl Jam‘s “Oceans,” Bon Iver‘s “Perth,” Stereolab‘s “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse,” and more.
Still Casual (buy it from Amazon) is a more traditional jazz album than Cover Art, but still retains a modern perspective that manifests itself in rhythmic choices as well as an overall approach to melody and harmony. It would be impossible to confuse this with an album released in the 1950s or early 1960s—it’s cool without being distanced, melodic without being sappy, and challenges the listener without being a mere look-what-I-can-do attempt to impress. The band includes trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (the two men have played on each other’s albums since the beginning of their respective careers), pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Matt Stevens, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Kendrick Scott.
Stream samples from Still Casual:
Smith answered a few questions by email.
Am I right in thinking this is the first time you’ve worked with several of the musicians on your album? Can you tell me what drew you to each man, and what he brings to the group, in your opinion?
I’ve actually been working with all of these guys for years in different configurations, but this is the first documentation of this particular group.
I went to high school and college with Kendrick Scott. We’ve been playing for about 19 years now in each other’s groups and also for a while in Terence Blanchard‘s group. I love the way that he orchestrates from behind the drums and shapes the music in a way that really brings life into the music. He’s one of the most dynamic drummers/musicians in the world.
I’ve been playing with Taylor Eigsti pretty regularly in Eric Harland‘s band for the last seven years. He has the ability to play virtually anything on the piano, but he also listens and plays what the music needs. He can really be very subtle and understated and is a very thoughtful accompanist that really makes the music have a beautiful flow to it.
Matt Stevens and I went to Berklee together and started playing in Christian Scott‘s first band around that time. He plays with a lot of emotion and adds a lot to the texture and vibe of the music.
Harish Raghavan and I have been playing with Ambrose Akinmusire‘s band for about eight years now and I really think he’s one of the most musical musicians I’ve played with. He has a great approach to sound and harmony that keeps things fresh at all times and really helps to build a sense of momentum within the rhythm section.
I’ve been playing and recording with Ambrose Akinmusire for about 10 years now and he’s been a huge influence to me personally and musically. I am really inspired by his playing and always feel like he’s re-inventing his own language and finding different ways to approach music in both is improvisation and composition.
Basically, these are all guys that I really respect and like as people and musicians, and they all exist without ego, which allows the music to feel really open and alive.
Ambrose has appeared on each of your albums, and you’ve played on his records—how would you describe your musical relationship, and the improvisational language you have together?
To kind of elaborate on what I just mentioned, from the moment I first heard him play up until now, he has been a constant source of inspiration that has pushed me to practice and write, even when I felt like taking days off. I’ve played with him more than anyone else in the past 10 years and I have been astounded every time. He has a fearless approach to playing and composing that is very honest, spiritual and human. Personally, he is one of the most moral and genuine people that you will ever meet. I think we’ve played so much together that we have become very comfortable with how each other phrases melodies and builds solos. I feel like even though we play very differently, there is a very common ground where we are able to connect that has become very intuitive and natural.
You’ve appeared on nearly three dozen albums, not counting your own releases—what do you see as your role when you’re hired as a sideman, and what do you think makes you the guy who gets that phone call?
It’s clearly because I am super good-looking that my phone keeps ringing… Seriously though, I think the thing that has helped me the most has been my ability to interpret music. The majority of what I’ve done professionally has been work as a sideman, and that is all about bringing life into someone’s music while still maintaining your own personality. I think that ends up being perhaps the most valuable skill for a sideman.
You were part of the Next Collective album, Cover Art, last year—how did that project come together? Were there any songs on that record that particularly spoke to you, or that you brought to the sessions?
The Next Collective album came together when I signed a deal to record with Concord Jazz, along with most of the other musicians that were in the Collective (Logan Richardson, Matt Stevens, Gerald Clayton, Kris Bowers, Christian Scott and Ben Williams). The album was kind of a fun way to introduce all of the signings and community that the label was building. The songs that I brought to the session were “Perth” by Bon Iver, “Thank You” by Dido and “Weightless” by Becca Stevens. I really like the way “Weightless” came out on the album, mainly because I just love that song so much. I also really enjoy Logan’s arrangement of Little Dragon‘s “Twice”.
You’ve bounced from one label to another with each record—is that just the way the jazz business is these days, or has that been a deliberate strategy?
For me, not starting with a major label from the beginning, it didn’t really make a lot of since to pursue remaining on one label since there were no long term deals with any of them. All three of my previous records came mostly out of convenience, where the label owner approached me to see if I was interested in doing an album. It ended up working out that they all each had the benefit of spreading my recordings throughout different regions of Europe, which led to a lot of performance opportunities.
You went to a high school for the arts, got fellowships and awards, graduated Berklee on scholarship, got a masters from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz…are you totally comfortable with what many see as the institutionalization of jazz, and the loss of its status as a vernacular music? Has jazz gained elite cultural position, to its musical and financial detriment?
I’m OK with music being in schools because that’s the only way I’ve ever experienced it. Not being around in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s, I can’t say that I would have liked one way better than the other. I know which one sounds more fun, but I’m sure there are benefits to both. I think things are still passed on the same way that they were before in the most part especially since most of the best musicians are teaching to some extent at schools and camps across the world. Even though people are in school during the day, a lot of their learning still comes in the hours outside of the classroom through sessions and hanging at different concerts and gigs. I do think that in some ways there are opportunities for a lot more musicians to have a shot at careers earlier on after having studied at school since most are very accomplished on their instruments. As for the financial detriment, I’m pretty sure that school is not the thing that put the business in this general situation.
Your degree is in music education—what do you teach? What is your philosophy as an educator, and how does it connect with your own playing? How much do you feel you’ve learned about jazz and about being a musician in school versus out?
I teach lots of things including ensembles, saxophone, and improvisation, and do workshops on various other aspects of performance and composition. The things that are important to me are not learning just one way to do something. I always try and make sure that students are thinking for themselves and making decisions based on their own ideas in addition to knowing what’s theoretically correct, and deciding which path to take on their own. I think that approach allows people to pick what they really like without being judged. You can love Mark Turner and Louis Armstrong and not sound like either one of them. (As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”) I try and make sure that while they check out the entire history via recordings and videos, they also spend lots of time listening to people who are alive and playing today, and stress the important of seeing them play live as much as possible. I spent a lot of time practicing and discovering things during my time at school and I feel like I still work with a lot of that information today, but I’ve learned how to really use it and make it meaningful since I’ve been playing touring, recording, and playing professionally.
If you could pick one track from Still Casual that sums up the album and the current state of your art, which one would it be and why?
My favorite track from the album would be “Apollo.” I think it has a great balance of atmosphere and emotion built into the composition while being a nice melodic statement. I’m into music that is moody on some level but still interesting to listen to from a musician’s point of view as well.
Who’s your favorite Texas tenor player, and what album by that player should more people hear?
Arnett Cobb! He has lots of albums that are highlighted on a “best of” album, but the one that my saxophone teacher from Houston (another famous Texas alto legend named Conrad Johnson) gave me was called Go Power. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis is also on that one and it’s pretty ridiculous.