CD Review:  Walt Smith III


CD:  Walter Smith III; TWIO

Label: Whirlwind



REVIEWED BY:  Andrew Janak


Recognized as as saxophonist and composer, some of Andrew’s compositions have been performed/recorded by groups around the United States including the UNL Jazz Orchestra with Victor Lewis, DePaul Jazz Ensemble with Randy Brecker, Bob Lark's Alumni Big Band and the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra. 

Walter Smith III-TWIO

by Andrew Janak

Since the release of his debut album Still Casual in 2006, Walter Smith III has been at the forefront of contemporary jazz, often interpreting harmonically dense original music, extended forms, and navigating mixed meters with ease. Smith would throw in the occasional standard on his records, but for the most part would perform tunes by himself and peers such as Ambrose Akinmusire. Smith’s latest album, Twio, finds him harkening back to the jazz tradition in both repertoire and instrumentation, interpreting a set of mostly Great American Songbook and Jazz standards with a chord-less trio. Smith’s one original composition on the album, “Contrafact,” is 5/4 tune based on the chord changes to “Like Someone In Love.” Joined by Harish Raghavan and Christian McBride splitting bass duties, Eric Harland on drums and special guest tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman (on two tracks), Smith pays homage to masters of the chord-less tenor trio like Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson while still blazing his own improvisational path.


Thelonious Monk’s composition “Ask Me Now” opens the album, and sets the tone for what is to come throughout the entire album: a seeming sense of telepathy between the musicians, virtuosic improvising that never abandons a sense of melody, and a strong sense of swing. Smith’s solo on the track is a master class in showing off technique without overwhelming the listener (and his fellow band mates). Both Raghavan and Harland accompany Smith with rhythmic energy throughout the track; Harland’s polyrhythmic snare interjections in particular push the piece forward. In interpreting Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else But Me,” Smith once again takes a straight ahead swinging approach, playing the melody over broken time in the rhythm section. Smith opens his solo with the superimposition of 3/4 meter over the 4/4 meter of the moment. Harland follows by playing in 3/4 for an extended amount of time, building up tension before launching into a muscular walking swing at the top of the next chorus.  


The several false starts and banter included at the beginning of Smith’s duo with Christian McBride on “Social Call” illustrates the sense of humor and relaxed nature of the recording as a whole. Once the tune starts for good, Smith and McBride trade fours with Smith showing off his elastic sense of time – laying back behind McBride’s bass accompaniment to create a push and pull between the two that never totally interrupts the groove. “Contrafact” opens with Smith and Redman stating the melody accapella, disguising the meter with over-the-bar line phrasing reminiscent of the contrafacts of Lennie Tristano. Once the rhythm section enters Smith and Redman take a chorus of collective improvisation, imitating one another on the fly and unencumbered the 5/4 time of the tune. Smith’s individual solo is full of motivic development and builds up from a sparse opening into streams of virtuosic double-time lines. Redman seems inspired by the presence of his fellow tenor titan and delivers a solo that freely flows over the bar lines and explores the altissimo register of the tenor.

With Twio, Walter Smith III further cements himself as one of the top tenor saxophonists in jazz today. Not only is Smith paying respect to the jazz tradition, he is adding to it, as this album will be mentioned in the same breath of saxophone trio masterpieces like Way Out West and State of the Tenor.