Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens – In Common 2
(Whirlwind WR4728. CD Review by John Bungey)
First, if you’re a lover of the noble art of album cover design, a word of warning. For the sleeve image (pictured left), the record company has simply taken the group shot from the first In Common album of 2018 and pasted the oversized heads of the new members onto the bodies of the departed rhythm section. Thus pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Nate Smith gaze out at you above the rumpled leisurewear of their predecessors.
Still, in such projects, it is of course the notes, not the lack of a design budget, that matter – and these are smart, imaginative New York chamber jazz notes. Matthew Stevens is the go-to guitarist for American forward-thinkers, his peppery chords and angular runs adding spice to the music of Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lynne Carrington. Walter Smith III’s warm, round-toned saxophone features in the bands of Eric Harland and Terri Lynne Carrington.
In Common 2 features ten pieces – short stories with the same freshness and spontaneity heard on their first album. While there’s nothing as cheerfully catchy as ACE from that first set, these tunes overall have greater clout. The aim, say the band’s leaders, was to write “one-page songs” that get to the music quickly. Tunes are often built on simple riffs, moods mixing melancholy and merrymaking. The upbeat conversations of Lotto set the tone as Stevens’s restless guitar intertwines with Smith’s soulful blowing. Thomas is a good fit on piano, running the gamut from the jittery chatter of Opera to the rhapsodic crescendo on Van Der Linde, picking his moment to take centre stage. Bassist Oh takes the foreground on Clem, her delicate fingerwork propelling a wistful meditation.
Nine of the tunes are originals – Roy Allan is a homage to its composer, the late Roy Hargrove, performed as an opening duet. Elsewhere, video games, the vastness of Canada and Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider are all inspirations.
The cover may be recycled, the music is not: it’s a stirring mix of structure and improv, funk and free-form – a useful update on where some of New York’s most creative players are headed.