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Walter Smith III: Jazz Explorer

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."

Smith got into jazz at an early age. His father, from New Orleans, was a saxophonist and when he started a family in Texas, he taught band in his son's elementary school. Growing up, his favorite sax players were Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright. Though then he found Charlie Parker, and in high school the sounds of Kenny Garrett, Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman and Mark Turner caught his ear. At the Berklee School of Music, which he attended on scholarship, he researched the classic players—Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Wayne Shorter.

"Ornette Coleman became big for me when I was in college. That sound really appealed to me. Eric Dolphy," says Smith. "Later on Sam Rivers was very interesting to listen to. Joe Lovano. All those guys. I found similarities in all of them and it was not uncommon for me to be listening to something from the 1930s and then next thing I put on was 2003. That kind of thing. They have such similarities, it was easy for me to find influential things within all of them."

Early on, he realized jazz was his thing and the direction he would go.

"There's a certain exclusivity about it in the beginning and everything kind of sounds the same. You don't really pick up on a lot of what's happening when you're listening to it. Then as you start to learn more about it, it becomes even more interesting," he says.

"I remember one time going to a master class. In Houston we had a limited number of people who actually came through town. But one of the guys that came when I was in ninth grade was Terence Blanchard. He did a workshop. He was talking about how to listen to music. He said don't always listen to the soloist. Listen to Wayne Shorter, but listen to how Herbie [Hancock] comps for him. That night I sat down with records I had been listening to forever and I listened to them that way. I was like, 'Oh my god. There's so much.' The conversational element of it. Then trying to think of ways to actually make that happen with other people. Then realizing they had been doing that all along, I just wasn't aware. That whole discovery process, between listening then actually trying to be a part of it by playing. Trying to become better at that."

"The more that you realize that that's going on, the more it leads you down the little rabbit hole. Before I knew it, I was 36," he says, chuckling.

Smith says elementary and middle schools in Texas had great music programs and jazz was part of the everyday curriculum. It was in high school that he got more serious, practicing more. He was also around other musicians that shared his hunger. The high school had already produced musicians like Harland and pianist Jason Moran. He was a classmate with Kendrick Scott and pianist Robert Glasper and guitarist Mike Moreno were a couple years ahead. Smith and Scott went together to Berklee, along with Mark Kelley, now bassist for the Roots.

After Berklee, it was off to the city where young jazz musicians have to make their bones—New York. After doing some gigs around town, he landed a job with the legendary Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth band, where he stayed for about a year and a half. "That was a big one," he says of Haynes. "But after that I played with others. Terence was cool. For the last five years I've been playing with Ambrose Akinmusire."

Casually Introducing Walter Smith III was his debut recording as a leader, followed by a live quintet release, Live in Paris in 2009. III in 2010 was next. His recording sessions as a sideman are numerous. During those year he moved to Los Angeles.

Education has always been important to Smith, who holds a music education degree from Berklee, a master's degree from Manhattan School of Music and graduate certificate in performance from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. This year, he became a professor at Indiana University, "adding another layer of complexity. I go out there a couple days a week." Smith enjoys the education aspect of his career. As well as passing his knowledge to students, he uses it as a learning tool.

"It makes me have to really think about the music that I am working on. Ways of approaching composition. Ways of approaching improvisation. Ways of approaching ensemble playing," Smith says. "All the topics you need to cover. I don't like to just do it on the fly. I like to think about it and prepare. That whole process, when there's a point to me doing it, it becomes a very informative experience about how I think about things—things that I should do differently or try differently. Then getting the experience of the feedback of doing it in real time, where it's not necessarily a project I'm doing. I learn a lot about how to go about doing those things, both in the compositional process and the improvisational process.

"One of those things that's interesting is all the people I've played with, and you're traveling all the time. You spend time in airports, on trains and at sound checks. You're sitting there and very rarely do you talk about, 'How do you approach doing this?' Because you want to have a little bit of a break from the musical part of your day-to-day thing. But in the school aspect, everyone is constantly asking questions. It's interesting to have that back and forth because, clearly, I don't know everything. A lot of times students will ask questions or make suggestions and I'm like, 'Oh, that makes so much sense.' I feel when I'm there, in addition to the time I'm putting in on my saxophone, practicing or composing, my mind is working so much in a positive way to get ideas and figure things out like that."

"So, for me," adds Smith, "I feel like the more I teach, the better I play. And the more I play, the better I teach. It's a symbiotic relationship, in a way."

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