Review: Walter Smith III
(The Spin, Oxford, 7th February 2013. Review by Alyn Shipton)
Ten days into his first full UK tour as leader, the quartet fronted by tenorist Walter Smith III has settled into a compact working band. And instead of the more formal settings of the early part of the tour at the Sage, the CBSO Centre and London’s Pizza Express, it was good to hear the band in one of the country’s most informal jazz clubs. The Spin won the 2012 Parliamentary Jazz Award for live music venue, and its mixture of enthusiastic audience with seedy charm harks back to the era when there was a thriving jazz club in every town.
The band took a number or two to settle, Jamire Williams’ drums drowning the more subtle sections of the opening Apollo, but after an extended bass solo from the admirably full-toned Michael Janisch, the quartet found its form and adapted to the room. Given the bad luck that saw guitarist Matt Stevens break two strings, he and the band adapted brilliantly — ironically the lengthy passages where Smith played with just bass and drums produced some of the night’s best music. I first saw Smith in full flight at Montreux in 2002, when his full-toned muscular playing won the audience prize in that year’s saxophone competition. He can still find that fluent, almost breathless form, his shoulders and hips jiggling slightly as cascades of perfectly shaped runs and arpeggios tumble from the horn, but this raw excitement is now leavened with maturity, space and reflection.
Behind the intently listening audience stood a small gaggle of students, texting, laughing and talking. With steely determination, the quartet launched into a very open, spacious ballad and simply willed the room into silence, Smith’s luscious open phrases sitting delicately over open guitar figures and some pastel shading from the drums. They pulled off the same trick in the second set, this time placing their poised ballad playing between some headlong charges of excitement. Ending on Smith’s Capital Wasteland (surely one of the few tunes in all of jazz to be inspired by Playstation 3) the band had the audience shouting for more. In the ten years since he left Berklee, Smith has matured into a fine soloist, and a distinctive and original voice on tenor. In this all-American quartet, he had ideal support, and should have created plenty of demand for future visits to this country.