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Walter Smith III: Jazz Explorer

R.J. DeLuke By

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The more I teach, the better I play. And the more I play, the better I teach —Walter Smith III
Walter Smith stands straight when he raises his tenor sax to his mouth to embark on a solo, or play enthralling, serpentine, contrapuntal lines in unison with band mates like Ambrose Akinmusire. [Check out "Confessions To My Unborn Daughter" from Akinmusire's When the Heart Emerges Glistening.] It's a muscular sound that emerged from his horn. Authoritative.

More than that, his improvisational path when he solos is unfettered and unpredictable. He's praised by his peers as a saxophonist who is developing his own voice, but retaining ties to the music's illustrious past.

Smith has led his own band and projects, but is a bit reticent about making them a priority. That's understandable if one takes into account the quality of the bands he is a part of, or has been in the past—Akinmusire's quintet, Christian Scott's group, the Sean Jones sextet, Terence Blanchard quintet, Eric Harland's Voyager band, Roy Haynes' Fountain of Youth band, Jason Moran's Big Bandwagon, and the Christian McBride Situation. He brings something top-notch to the table at each juncture.

Nonetheless, each of Smith's own recordings are very strong. His last, 2014's Still Casual, is stellar, accompanied by his contemporaries including Taylor Eigsti on piano, Matt Stevens on guitar, Harish Raghavan on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums with guest spots by Akinmusire. His next will come out this fall, a trio project with Harland on drums and McBride on bass. Joshua Redman plays sax on a couple numbers. It's a menu of jazz standards.

Smith, a graduate of the renowned High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston that has produced so many fine musicians, is currently active with Harland's Voyager band and will be playing with musicians in Europe this summer. He's pondering the amount of focus he will put on the new recording and his trio.

"I usually put my projects last, as far as the priority level," he says. "But I think with this one, it's hard to say. Is it something I'm really into? Like, my last project I ended up liking more and more as I listened to it. I had my manager push to do more work with me as a leader." With the new record, it will depend on his level of excitement. "But if I'm pumped up, I'll try to make it more of a priority. I think it would be fun. [he chuckles] I just don't know if I have the energy to do real trio gigs all the time. That's a lot of playing."

Doing jazz standards "is something I've wanted to do for a while," he says. "I always assumed that would happen a lot earlier, but because of the people that I play with, I ended up doing original music. It's just never come up to do it," he says. When he played some standards, at times it became complicated, where he would play his original forms and chord changes, with a standard melody over it. So at the recording session earlier this year, he decided to "just play them kind of straight."

"It's great. But in a way, I felt like some of the music I was playing—I'm not sure that it sits well with me, because I trying to play in a way that I don't necessarily play all the time," he says.

He says at a gig in Japan in April with Harland, he went to a late night jam session with the drummer and bassist Raghavan. "We actually ended up playing a trio tune. And I felt like, 'Man, I can also do this on the record.' So I was debating going back in with them and doing a couple tunes to kind of add that to the record as a contrast to what we have already. I'm not sure if that will happen, but we'll see. Because I'm happy with the regular record. I just feel like it's another thing that could be there."

"Nothing from me is imminent, but once the record comes out [September], I'll see about doing more with the trio," he said.

Among the things keeping him busy, in addition to his multiple sideman gigs, is writing for projects that are are on the horizon. "I'm starting to write for a project I'm going to do next year, and one I'm going to do the year after that. The band from my last record—a quintet—I'm planning to record that in two years, so I'm trying to get a fresh batch of music finished for that. And next year I'm thinking of dong a duo project and I'm working toward writing music for that."

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