by Ian Mann
October 23, 2018
The part composed, part improvised statements of “In Common” speak succinctly and elegantly. The music is full of excellent ideas and some frequently wonderful playing.
Walter Smith III / Matthew Stevens Quintet
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4728)
“In Common” features a stellar North American quintet co-led by tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens. The group also includes vibraphonist Joel Ross, double bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
Smith has been a mainstay of the Whirlwind label since its inception, having appeared on its very first release, bassist and label founder Michael Janisch’s seminal “Purpose Built” from way back in 2009. He also guested on guitarist Romain Pilon’s “Colourfield” in 2013 and earlier in 2018 released his leadership début for the label “Twio” featuring drummer Eric Harland and with bass duties shared between long term collaborator Raghavan and Christian McBride. Fellow saxophonist Joshua Redman also guests on a couple of tracks. Smith has also featured extensively in bands led by the American trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire, these groups also including Raghavan.
Smith and the Toronto born Stevens have worked regularly together and the guitarist was part of the Smith led quartet that toured the UK in 2013 – Janisch and drummer Jamire Williams completed the line up. Stevens has also played a crucial role in groups led by trumpeter Christian Scott and by bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, at various times acting as something of a ‘musical right hand man’ for both these artists. Others with whom he has been associated include pianist Jacky Terrasson, bassist Linda Oh, and drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Harvey Mason.
Stevens is also a leader of his own groups and released the excellent quintet album “Woodwork” on the Whirlwind label in 2015, his band featuring pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro. More recently he has been working in a more obviously fusion-esque power trio featuring Archer and Doob, releasing the album “Preverbal” on the Ropeadope label in March 2017. It was this line up, albeit with Zach Brown replacing Archer, that Stevens brought to Ronnie Scott’s for a performance at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival.
This current project – In Common seems to function as a band name as much as an album title – involves music that straddles the cusp between composition and improvisation as Stevens explains;
“Walter and I had been talking about putting a recording session together and decided to go into the studio with music that could be quickly interpreted with an interesting group of musicians and to let it unfold naturally from there”.
Smith takes up the story;
“Part of the basis was to write relatively simple music. The idea of simplicity downplayed individual ownership, which was liberating”.
With this concept in mind the compositional credits are deliberately left vague on the album packaging, and any information that follows regarding individual pieces is sourced solely from the press release accompanying my copy of the CD.
The album commences with the brief improvisation “freefive” which acts as a kind of ‘scene-setter’ for the album as a whole. Smith’s tenor sketches a melody, accompanied by Stevens’ sympathetic guitar chording. Despite the title it’s actually an understated duo performance.
Stevens’ composition “Unsung” is more substantial, a piece written to honour the overlooked members of contemporary society. Vaguely melancholic in tone and taken at a languid medium pace its song-like structure acts as the vehicle for solos from Stevens, Smith and Ross. The composer goes first, his crystalline tone and unhurried delivery sometimes reminiscent of Bill Frisell. Smith is smooth toned, melodic and fluent while Ross adds a dash of sparkle with his glittering vibes before handing over to Stevens once more.
“YINZ”, a Pittsburgh expression meaning y’all apparently, continues the emotional mood but is more obviously improvised as Smith, Stevens and Ross weave interlocking melody lines around Raghavan’s anchoring bass and the soft, circling, neatly detailed patterns of Gilmore’s drums and percussion. The mood is relaxed and co-operative, rather than combative, as the quintet subtly beguile their listeners, drawing them into the world of their musical explorations.
Rather improbably (this is jazz after all) “ACE” has been released as a single, but in a sense its easy to see why. The piece begins with a kind of minimalist ‘musical box’ effect that becomes the backbone of the track as Smith delivers one of his most attractive saxophone melodies and Ross adds flowing, marimba like vibes. With its gorgeous melody and simple song-like structure it’s a piece that gets under your skin in much the same way as something by Portico Quartet or Polar Bear might do.
“foreword” (the lower case titles are the group’s) commences with a delicate but absorbing dialogue between Smith’s pure toned tenor and Ross’ shimmering vibes, with guitar and bass subtly added to the equation in the closing stages.
By way of contrast “Baron” features a darting, sax led theme and a mercurial vibes solo, the whole underpinned by Gilmore’s deft, crisp, colourful, neatly detailed drumming. It’s a piece that manages to squeeze a lot of information into its brief (a little over two minutes) duration. Given the excellence of Gilmore’s contribution I’d like to think that the piece is named in honour of another supremely accomplished drummer, the great Joey Baron.
There’s a complete change of pace with the dark and gently brooding “13th Floor” which positively crawls by, paced by the lugubrious stride of Raghavan’s underpinning bass motif. Smith blows long, sombre melody lines and Gilmore again makes an excellent contribution, revelling in his role of colourist with his subtle, but always busy and finely detailed, drum commentary.
The boppish “About 360” ups the energy levels once more with Raghavan’s agile and propulsive bass lines helping to fuel fluent, pithy and elegant solos from Stevens and Smith. But it’s the bassist who is at the heart of the arrangement and his ongoing dialogue with Gilmore is consistently fascinating.
“About 360” seems to end with almost indecent haste but clears the way for the quintet’s tribute to the late Geri Allen (1957-2017), a performance of the pianist’s composition “Unconditional Love”.
It’s a delightful interpretation in the now familiar laid back but questing In Common house style, initiated by Smith’s tenor but with beautiful solos from both Stevens and Ross on guitar and vibes respectively. The rhythm section is quietly bustling with both Raghavan and Gilmore adding greatly to the success of a performance that is a fitting tribute to the memory of the great Geri Allen.
The album concludes as it began with a duet between co-leaders Smith and Stevens, this time with the pair in a dialogue around an earlier theme in the shape of “ACE (reprise)”.
At only thirty seven minutes in length it’s tempting, particularly on the first listen, to think of this album as a series of sketches, and even maybe to feel a little short changed. But scratch below the surface and the music is full of excellent ideas and some frequently wonderful playing. Smith is one of the less demonstrative contemporary saxophonists but his flawless tone and ‘less is more’ approach works well, and in the similarly understated Stevens he seems to have found his perfect foil. Ross, Raghavan and Gilmore all make excellent and telling contributions with the drummer’s role becoming more and more significant as the album progresses.
Ultimately it’s quality that counts rather than quantity and the part composed, part improvised statements of “In Common” speak succinctly and elegantly. One senses that there is a genuine, if understated, chemistry between the members of this quintet with the promise of even greater things to come, whichever musical route they may choose to follow.
The sheer quality of the music on “In Common” is sufficient to merit its four stars and Jazzmann recommendation.
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