by Ian Mann
February 05, 2013
An excellent evening's music with some superb and technically brilliant playing from all four protagonists
Walter Smith III Quartet, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 02/12/2013.
I first encountered the playing of American tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III in 2009 when he appeared as part of an all star Anglo/American line-up on bassist Michael Janisch’s superb album “Purpose Built”. In 2012 I saw him perform live for the first time when he appeared as a member of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s quintet at a concert at Bristol’ s Colston Hall.
Smith is currently touring the UK with an all American quartet featuring guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Jamire Williams plus US born London resident Janisch. Stevens and Williams are concurrently members of trumpeter Christian Scott’s band and as Smith later explained Stevens has just signed a deal with the prestigious Concord record label as a solo artist. I saw the pair perform at the 2010 London Jazz Festival as part of the Christian Scott band who were playing as support to Courtney Pine. Tonight it was good to get a more extended look at these two excellent young musicians.
Born in Houston, Texas and now based in New York Smith may be a relatively unfamiliar name to UK audiences but nonetheless an audience of around 100 turned up at the CBSO Centre to see his performance. It was my first visit to the venue for quite some time and the event served as a timely reminder of what a good place this is to listen to music with a good acoustic despite the height of the building. Turning again to Smith the saxophonist has released three albums as a leader but has appeared on more than seventy recordings as a sideman. Among those with whom he has worked are the aforementioned Scott and Akinmusire plus Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Mulgrew Miller, Eric Harland, Joe Lovano, Lewis Nash, Terri-Lyne Carrington and many more - some of the greatest names in American jazz in other words.
Another reason for the healthy turn out may have been that any collaboration involving Janisch is invariably interesting and it’s almost certain that he was instrumental in getting this all star line up over to the UK for a short tour. In addition to his playing and organising activities Janisch also runs the increasingly influential Whirlwind Recordings, a label that is beginning to acquire the same kind of significance as Dave Stapleton’s Edition label, another musician led project. When introducing the musicians Smith seemed particularly keen to “big up” Janisch’s achievements and rightly so.
The current tour is variously promoted as by being the Walter Smith III Quartet or Walter Smith III Project. The latter name is perhaps reflected by the fact that much of tonight’s material was new, as yet unrecorded and still untitled, much of it presumably having been written specifically for this tour. The first piece was a good introduction to the quartet’s sound, elegant adventurous post bop but still rooted firmly in the tradition. Stevens took the first solo, adopting a pure, clear tone on guitar with minimal reverb and with no recourse to effects. His graceful single note lines and subtle, sophisticated chording occasionally evoked comparisons with Pat Metheny or Kurt Rosenwinkel but essentially the quietly eloquent Stevens was very much his own man.
Smith followed him and in an essentially acoustic group he adopted the same quietly eloquent approach on the tenor saxophone. Smith is a fluent improviser with an enormous technical facility but his solos were more interested in painting pictures and telling stories than grandstanding exercises in technique. Occasionally he reminded me of the similarly tasteful Mark Turner, but again this was very much the sound of an individual at work, a player who has found his own voice on his chosen instrument.
Williams was featured next, his crisp, wristy drumming displaying an admirable lightness of touch as he danced lightly around his kit, exhibiting both a formidable technique but also admirable restraint. I’ve no doubt that Williams can thrash the hell out of a drum kit but in this largely acoustic context he chose to exercise his virtuosity lightly and always in service to the music.
The “by rote” bass solos that sometimes “grace” these occasions can rapidly become tedious but not in the hands of Janisch who is one of the most interesting and absorbing bass soloists around with a huge tone, phenomenal technique and more importantly a strong sense of narrative.
Here his solo seemed to act as a bridge into a second untitled piece with Smith stating the theme on tenor before taking the first solo. He was followed by Stevens’ whose engaging solo was packed full of lithe, slippery chording and agile single note runs, the whole pushed and prompted by the dapper Williams’ subtly propulsive drumming.
The next item began with Smith’s solo tenor, this gradually mutating into a delightful duet for saxophone and guitar with Williams gradually adding the shimmer of cymbals and shakers with Janisch providing rich arco bass. Smith eventually picked out a wispy melody and this abstract ballad featured further delicate interplay between tenor and guitar with Williams combining mallet rumbles and further cymbal shimmers to atmospheric effect.
At this point Smith paused to introduce the band, revealing a dry wit as he announced the final number of the first set, “Capital Wasteland” from his most recent album, simply entitled “III” and released on the Criss Cross label in 2010 (I understand that, like Stevens, Smith is now signed to Concord). I love the combination of tenor sax and guitar (here our own Partisans spring to mind) and relished seeing Smith and Stevens combine to state the song like theme before diving off to deliver their solos. Stevens went first and was his usual eloquent and accomplished self but it was Smith’s marathon solo, a model of gradually building intensity that climaxed an excellent first set.
The first tune of the second half maintained these levels of intensity with Janisch going first and giving us all a further reminder of just how compelling a bass soloist he can be. Smith followed him with a typically well constructed solo that increased in urgency as it progressed. Stevens kept the pot simmering before the piece climaxed with a scintillating drum feature as Williams roamed around his kit to the accompaniment of Janisch’s muscular bass patterns.
Williams also kicked off the next piece which morphed into a Smith solo that took in quotes from standards (I think I heard “All The Things You Are”) before progressing via a brief passage of solo tenor into another sax/guitar duet. The piece then took on a song like structure as Stevens and Smith stretched out above the driving rhythms of Janisch and Williams.
Smith then cooled things with a ballad featuring his tenor at his smokiest above Williams’ delicately brushed grooves, the piece also including a coolly elegant solo from Stevens and being bookended by passages of unaccompanied tenor saxophone. It sounded like a standard to me but I couldn’t put my finger on it and in any case Smith implied that all the material was new other than the tunes he actually announced.
One of these was next, the slyly titled “Himorme” from Smith’s most recent album. Introducing the tune Smith advised us that Williams is also from Houston and runs his own band Erimaj (see what he did there). The tune itself was the closest that the quartet came to orthodox bebop with intricate, boppish solos coming from Smith and Stevens and with a final brilliant bass feature from Janisch.
Jazzlines’ Tony Dudley Evans succeeded in coaxing the band back on stage for an encore with Smith’s urgent tenor ushering in the tune “Contraband”, a relatively brief number featuring solos from Smith on tenor and Stevens on guitar, the latter’s lines lithe and slippery but as clearly delineated as ever.
Overall this was an excellent evening’s music with some superb and technically brilliant playing from all four protagonists. There was perhaps too great a reliance on the head/solos/head format but with the quality of the musicianship on offer this hardly seemed to matter. It is to be hoped that Janisch can get this quartet recorded, either in the studio or on one of the dates on this tour, and issue the results on Whirlwind.
In the meantime catch the trio elsewhere on this tour if you can. Remaining dates are;
Feb 6: Trinity College of Music, London, UK
Feb 7: The Spin, Oxford, UK
Feb 8: The Fleece, Boxford, UK
Feb 9: Drill Hall Arts Center, Lincoln, UK
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