26 years old at the time of this writing, Walter Smith III could be considered something of a phenomenon, being a young saxophone talent with prodigious skills and a fresh style. Having graduated from his performing arts high school in his native Houston, from Berklee with a degree in Music Education and from the Manhattan School of Music with a masters in Jazz Performance, he will graduate in 2007 from the Thelonious Monk Institute. Of course, his development has not been limited to the classroom. Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Eric Reed, Ralph Peterson, Darren Barrett and numerous others have featured him in their performances, and he has moonlighted briefly with pop acts Lauryn Hill and Destiny's Child.
His debut, Casually Introducing Walter Smith III, features not only some well-crafted original compositions but also some lesser known tunes from some of his influences. On the opener, Sam Rivers's "Cyclic Episode," Smith weaves a complex solo, elaborating on the motifs in the melody. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's solo has a definite arc of its own with some bright, melodic upper-register lines. Smith is sensitive but hearty, drifting over Mingus's "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," which is beautifully spacious as a trio performance (sax, bass and drums). Guitarist Lionel Loueke, known for his inspiring, unpredictable playing, gives a lyrical solo on his own contribution, "Benny's Tune" (originally recorded on Terence Blanchard's Flow). Smith follows suit with some fleet lines, and pianist Aaron Parks spins some ideas inside and outside of the anthemic chord changes.
Smith's own pieces are highly inventive and varied in style. "Wooden Box (Spatula in Three)," a light, unhurried waltz, features Smith's warm tone contrasting with Parks's crystalline chords. The warbly, circular soprano sax/guitar/Rhodes lines of "Tail of Benin" are hypnotic with some knotty solos from Smith, Parks and Loueke, who employs some intriguing guitar effects here. "Kate Song"'s sonic qualities are as alluring as its melody and harmony. Robert Glasper's fills on the Fender Rhodes murmur in dialogue with Parks's luminous piano. Harland is supplemented by Matt Kilmer on electronic hand percussion. The climax is Smith's own solo: his powerful statements are tempered by Gretchen Parlato's voice, singing the same solo in unison. The resulting timbre is both striking and delicate, and the chord changes are gorgeous.
In a recent interview with me, Smith talked about his move from Berklee in Boston to the Manhattan School of Music:
When you move to New York, you're kind of "on the scene," which can be good or it can be bad for you because you definitely have stuff to "work out." If you're in New York, you're in the presence of everyone else while you're working it out, whereas I kind of felt like, when I was in Boston, [...] it was more of like an incubator so that when I did move to New York, not that I was totally ready, but I felt like I had a little more maturity [...].So instead of blazing onto the scene with hype and fanfare, Smith has inserted himself into it rather modestly -- or casually, if you will. Though young by some standards, he has maturity, a distinctive voice, an attractive debut album and a brilliant future ahead. He deserves some hype.
Casually Introducing Walter Smith III (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Walter Smith III (tenor sax)
Gretchen Parlato (vocals)
Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet)
Lionel Loueke (vocals, guitar)
Lage Lund (guitar)
Aaron Parks (piano)
Robert Glasper (Fender Rhodes)
Reuben Rogers (bass)
Vicente Archer (bass)
Eric Harland (drums)
Kendrick Scott (drums)
Matt Kilmer (electronic hand percussion)
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