Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens ‘In Common 2’ LP/CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 4/5

For those who may not be familiar with Walter Smith III here’s a little background. The soon to be forty-year-old saxophonist and composer is Chair of the Wood Wind Department at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. In addition to his teaching commitments, he regularly works with the likes of Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti, Christian Scott and Aaron Parks and has established himself in the vanguard of the international jazz and improvised music scene. This is his sixth album release as a leader, having made his debut in 2006 and has participated in more than 37 recordings.

Smith’s hometown is Huston, Texas and he took up the saxophone at the tender age of seven. Over the years he has won numerous awards and a tuition scholarship to Berklee.

Previously signed to Concord Records, this is his third release for the esteemed British label and his second in tandem with guitarist Stevens. The intrepid duo has assembled a first-class trio to accompany them including pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Nate Smith. The leaders’ first release in 2017 was very well received and so their follow up has been eagerly anticipated. As previously, the album consists almost entirely of original compositions provided by the co-leaders, but the changes in personnel has allowed for a subtly different but equally dynamic release.

The original compositions are relatively straightforward and yet melodic pieces which were written specifically to reflect the character of the group. The set opens with the only non-original being the group’s tribute to trumpeter Roy Hargrove; ‘Roy Allen’ a short almost abstract interpretation with the guitarist playing acoustic. The saxophonist’s tone here reminds me of Joe Lovano, which is certainly no bad thing. ‘Lotto’ is next, bringing to mind Lovano’s collaborations with John Scofield dating from the 1990s, and which sees the guitarist switching to the electric variant. ‘Cowboy’ opens with bass and guitar setting the tempo before a slightly meditative theme emerges. The pianist makes a great impression on this piece. ‘Clem’ opens with more wonderful piano before bass and drums join and tenor sax thereafter. This is a more relaxed and intensely melodic piece of music which will stay in the listener’s mind long after hearing it.

This album keeps delivering pleasant surprises throughout its ten tracks. ‘Provinces’ has a particularly beguiling melody which will long remain in the listener’s mind. In contrast ‘Opera’ is more dramatic in nature with piano providing the initial momentum and later featuring more wonderful acoustic guitar. ‘Type Rider’ is driven along by bass and drums to good effect and is another piece whose melody will become something of an “ear worm”.

This is highly structured yet melodic music which will repay repeated listening. A key point is its accessibility and overall, the album is a fine example of contemporary jazz at its best.

Alan Musson