Walter Smith III released his debut album, Casually Introducing (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006), to enthusiastic reviews. On it, he covered Sam Rivers, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and wrote the other six tracks, showcasing a mature and varied sense of composition. His playing and arrangements showed him to be a new, young (he was 26 years old) artist on the rise. Over the ensuing years, he released eight other albums, mainly for European labels. These recordings (including one live release) have shown growing maturity and confidence, particularly in his playing while his sense of composition has remained uniformly high.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Smith's father was a drummer and his mother was a pianist/vocalist and he was exposed to music at a young age. He went on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and received his bachelor's degree in music education in 2003 and was the recipient of the school's prestigious "Outstanding Musicianship" award. After graduating, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in jazz. He quickly established himself as a sought-after sideman, playing with notable musicians such as Roy Haynes, Christian McBride and Terence Blanchard.
This brings us to his big-label debut for Blue Note Records. Going full circle, he named it Return To Causal. This album fulfills the promise Smith has shown throughout his career. His writing has become more meticulous and engaging, combining intricate post-bop melodies with the ability to craft intricate and layered ballads.
The album kicks off full-force with "Contra," a jagged melody with shifting time signatures tune showcasing Smith's tenor mastery. In it, he evokes the memory of Sam Rivers, obviously a big influence on Smith (the opening track of Smith's debut album was Rivers' "Cyclic Episode"). Matt Stevens on guitar provides an angular counterpoint during his solo.
"River Styx" is a haunting arrangement, allowing guest trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire to shine. "Pup-Pow" continues in a similar vein, focusing on the ensemble playing of the entire band with Stevens' guitar adding the textures underneath. The circular, cascading flow of Smith's compositions and arrangements are reminiscent of the classic Dave Holland track, "Four Winds" from Conference With The Birds (ECM, 1973) which features Rivers and Anthony Braxton on saxophones.
"Lamplight" is the most straight-ahead track on the album, while "Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me" is a dirge-like composition, featuring the slow melancholy backing of Taylor Eigsti on the piano with drummer Scott Kendrick pushing the tempo throughout. Both tracks allow Smith to play with abandon, while the latter features Akinmusire for the second and final time on the album. There is real empathy between the two horn players.
There are several gorgeous ballads in the set, including "Shine" and the album's closing track, "Revive." Also, the one non-original track on the album is "Mother Stands For Comfort," the Kate Bush ballad. Smith III infuses the well-known popular track with his own sensibility while staying quite close to the original. The totality of Return To Casual shows that Walter Smith III has graduated from Young Lion to Jazz Great.
Contra; River Styx; Pup-Pow; Shine; Mother Stands For Comfort; Quiet Song; Lamplight; Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me; Revive.
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