The awareness of an audience or home listener is a key rite of passage in the creative development of an artist. Its something that usually becomes an issue as a performer moves beyond that initial creative surge of their early work, that build-up of compositions that led to initial success and attention has been exhausted and audience expectations have grown. So Walter Smith III's decision to revisit classic jazz tunes on this collection was not one that initially quickened the pulse. Would it be a crowd pleasing exercise in rehashes of standards, or perhaps an excruciating 're-imagining' of them of interest only to professors at elite music colleges? Smith showed an awareness of the pitfalls initially trying out the material live attempting to ..."alter tunes quite radically ...to a point where I was barely playing the original song..." before realising that he had missed the point of playing the songs, choosing to interpret the material more directly choosing pieces that he had above all ..."a particular relationship with, and have always loved playing..." .
So far so good, but the approach might yet have faltered had the playing not been up to scratchthe simple answer is that it emphatically is. Smith with the core of Harish Raghaven on bass and Eric Harland on drums has achieved a remarkable lightness and enthusiastic sense of community amongst the band. There are notable guest spots by Christian McBride, who substitutes for Raghaven on four tracks and Joshua Redman who plays on two. The feel is of a band enjoying each other's company on songs that they have all internalised and know backwards. This means that they need concentrate less on the material and more on sparking off of each other.
The opening two tracksMonk's "Ask Me Now" and Jerome Kern's "Nobody Else But Me" exemplify this breezy, good-natured opennessHarland's excellent drumming, his interactions with Raghaven pushing Smith into melodically classy solos. Everyone sounds like they are having a great time, audible in "On the Trail" when Redman stops by adding a second focal point for the music that works wonderfully well. The feel of community is important to the project Smith noting that ..."when we tour with original music, its hard to invite people up on stage... because they are simply unfamiliar with that particular repertoire...." The general idea being that the more familiar pieces encourage musicians to ..."sit in, have fun, and share ideas, which I imagined this music was all about in the first place."
Harland in particular deserves special mentionhis contribution to the duo piece with Smith "We'll Be Together Again" shows superb control, as well as illustrating the flexibility of line up in the album. Smith has thought carefully about how to present this music, subtly varying the approach or line up from track to track. Indeed the album ends with the Smith composition "Contrafact," allegedly built from "Like Someone in Love," where the dual tenor approach of Redman and Smith weaves around each other while the rhythm section fill admirably. Its warm, engaging and fleet of foot marking a strong end to the album.
If the test of a jazz album is whether it connects and speaks to you then Smith has unequivocally succeeded. That he has been able to do so with that most hoary of old chestnut 'the standards album' is a tribute to the way that the band interact on this warm, good-natured treat. Twio achieves a near perfect balance between accessibility and musical excellence providing a highly enjoyable, if unexpected, treat. Warmly recommended.
Ask Me Now; Nobody Else But Me; On The Trail; We'll Be Together Again;
I'll Be Seeing You; Adam's Apple; The Peacocks; Social Call; Contrafact.
Walter Smith III: tenor saxophone; Harish Raghaven: bass (1,2,6-7); Eric Harland:
drums; Guests: Christian McBride: bass (3,5,8-9); Joshua Redman: tenor