Walter Smith III & Matthew Stevens – In Common III
(Whirlwind Recordings– WR4783. Album review by Graham Spry)
In Common III is the third in a series of albums released on Whirlwind Recordings since October 2018 from quintets co-led by tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens.
Walter Smith III has played with much of the cream of contemporary American jazz, including Ambrose Akinmusire, Eric Harland and Christian Scott, as well as releasing excellent albums in his own name (such as the superb 2010 album III). Matthew Stevens’ musical history overlaps time and again with Smith’s, and also includes a regular role in Esperanza Spalding’s band.
The other three roles in the quintet – pianist, bassist and drummer – are taken by different personnel on each album in the series. One of the project’s strengths is the quality of these collaborators, and in this release that fact is highlighted by the front cover illustration, with the names of the five musicians assembled as a kind of lightning bolt, perhaps signifying the energy of five equally dynamic musicians.
And what a stellar line up it is! Dave Holland on bass, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and Kris Davis on piano, no less. Neither Holland nor Carrington needs much introduction for British or American jazz fans, but Davis is a wonderful Canadian pianist who has also played with the likes of Ingrid Laubrock and Craig Taborn.
As in the first two In Common recordings, Smith and Stevens presented the musicians with what they describe as ‘one-page songs’ specifically written for them. The result is a diverse selection of fifteen relatively compact tunes that hold together remarkably well and, thanks to the quality of the musicians, are tight, perfectly structured and engaging. The finished tunes are rarely more than four minutes long and so complete in themselves that they are almost all ideal for radio play. Indeed, four tracks have already been released as singles and there are several others that could just as well have been chosen. The music is fairly eclectic so, whilst most tunes are easily accessible to the general listener, there is also space given for free expression.
The first single from the album is the guitar-led Orange Crush which is strong in both melody and groove, and the perfect taster for the whole album. The other singles taken from the album are the jaunty For Some Time and the playful and descriptively entitled tunes Loping and Hornets. Not all tracks employ the complete quintet. Both the relatively spare opener Shine (a tribute to some recently deceased jazz heavyweights) and the moderately free Oliver feature Smith and Stevens as a duo. Several tracks are trio settings with Davis on accompanying piano. These tunes include Dust, Lite and Shut Out that are amongst the most abstract and free on the record, although the closing track Miserere could hardly be more tranquil and reflective. Judging by the quality of this collaboration, I hope we can look forward to a trio album with Davis in the future. The majority of the tracks feature all five musicians and are superb. It is always a joy to hear a band involving Holland and Carrington.
This is a truly exceptional addition to Whirlwind Recordings’ catalogue of albums by adventurous international artists made much the more enjoyable by the leaders’ mischievous sense of humour that can be experienced as much on the album’s cover as in the music. Those who have read John Bungey’s review of the second album, In Common 2, (Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens – “In Common 2” – London Jazz News) will be pleased to see that the back cover photograph continues the tradition set by the previous albums of recycling and slightly modifying the front cover of the project’s first album.