Album review

Walter Smith III, ‘return to casual’

Walter Smith III, return to casual

Blue Note Records 4886621 (CD review by Mike Collins)

Press ‘play’ on Walter Smith III’s return to casual, his debut release on Blue Note Records, and an urgent, jagged, extended melodic pattern leaps out of the speaker, repeats and unfolds, grabbing the listener by the ears.  Smith’s tenor and pianist Taylor Eigsti reel out Contra’s spiky phrases before first Smith then guitarist Matt Stevens trace bustling, twisting, melodic lines over the angular template. It’s an arresting opener to a varied set of 9 originals and 1 cover.

Smith has had a productive spell with Whirlwind Records in recent years during which he released a hatful of recordings including the In Common series over three sessions with different top drawer collaborators. They experimented with composition and creating a group sound in recording sessions, producing a remarkable series of musical documents in the process. Now Smith, signed to Blue Note for the first time, has reconvened the line-up with which he recorded still casual nearly a decade ago. The sound is fluent and unforced, but its quality suggests it’s anything but casual. Joining Smith, Stevens and Eigsti are Kendrick Scott  on drums and Harish Raghavan on bass. Trumpet wizard Ambrose Akinmusire guests on two tracks and James Francies on Rhodes on another. Contra may be a frenetic start to the set, but there’s a big range in the moods. 

Akinmusire guests on River Styx  and Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me. River Styx’s, flowing pulse provides a platform for sinuous lines from Smith before trumpet and drums spar and bounce of each other, whilst on Amelia Earhart a moody skittering backing sets the scene for Smith and Akinmusire to chatter and interact as the energy and intensity builds. Pow sketches and builds an atmosphere with an insistent, repeating motif passed around the band, a concentrated group effort. The cover of Kate Bush’s Mother Stands for Comfort allows the melody and stately harmony to glow before a space clears for just Smith and Stevens to push and pull the melodic content between them in an affecting, intense moment. Quiet Song and Lamplight are high energy work outs whilst the elegiac Shine that first appeared on In Common III as a duo piece, is re-worked here with a gently propulsive groove and a swooping emotional solo from Eigsti.

This meeting of old friends who have been playing together in various combinations for two decades now, is a treat for both for the quality of individual and collective playing, but also for Smith’s writing for this ensemble. It’s a set to savour and return to.

Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bristol, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter: @jazzyblogman

LINK: return to casual at Presto Music

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