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Before & After with Walter Smith III

A tenor for our times is on point while on the move

Walter Smith III
Walter Smith III (photo: Jati Lindsay)

Walter Smith III has been burning the candle at both ends. As he connected with JazzTimes via Zoom from a New York City hotel room in mid-March, a flurry of activity surrounded him. He spent the previous weekend playing with both the Maria Schneider Orchestra and vocalist Sara Gazarek in their respective performances at Birdland, kicked off a weeklong run with drummer Bill Stewart’s trio at the Village Vanguard the night before this virtual listening session, and completed six hours of work on schedules for the summer and fall semesters at Berklee College of Music—his alma mater, where he now serves as the chair of the woodwind department—shortly before we logged on. One might think such a workload and pace would sap him of his energy, but he was right as rain and raring to go. That same focus and enthusiasm that Smith showed for our get-together seems to factor into all of his many pursuits, making him one of the most in-demand saxophonists on the scene today.

Since releasing his debut album 16 years ago, Smith has seemed almost omnipresent. His sideman credits include work with trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire, Terence Blanchard, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and Sean Jones; pianists Jason Moran, Gerald Clayton, and Danny Grissett; drummers Roy Haynes, Eric Harland, Donald Edwards, Kendrick Scott, and Ralph Peterson; and numerous others, including bassist Christian McBride and vibraphonist Warren Wolf. Having appeared on more than 100 recordings, including recent releases from trumpeter Marquis Hill and drummer Matt Slocum, Smith proves as powerful and thought-provoking a presence in the studio as he is on stage.

His own leader discography reveals that too. With a handful of well-received dates under his own name spanning formats from the compact chordless trio (on 2018’s Twio) to a sturdy sextet, Smith has carved out his place within the ranks. And through a series of co-led releases with guitarist Matthew Stevens under the In Common appellation, he’s broken new ground. Each In Common album has employed a different three-piece rhythm section; In Common III, released five days before we spoke, finds Smith and Stevens meeting up with an exceptional x-factor in the form of pianist Kris Davis, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.

An easy conversationalist showing great insight, good humor, and pure love for what he hears and does, Smith moved comfortably from topic to topic before and between our times in listening mode, touching on everything from the origins and progress of the In Common concept to previous teaching work at Indiana University and current efforts at Berklee to his and saxophonist Bob Reynolds’ early, positive encounters with the concertizing Kenny G. And when the music was rolling, not surprisingly, Smith appeared right at home for this, his first Before & After.

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Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Adam Larson
“We See” (With Love, From Chicago, Outside In). Larson, tenor saxophone; Clark Sommers, bass; Dana Hall, drums. Recorded in 2021.

BEFORE: [Listens for about 80 seconds] This is “We See” by Monk, played in a trio format. And I randomly know who this is because he sent this to me and I actually listened to some of it this week [laughs]! This is Adam’s record, right? Adam Larson.

AFTER: He sent this to me a while ago. I’ve been meaning to get to it and I’m glad I did! Adam is an incredible saxophone player and I think you can hear it, in his time feel, like when he plays the melody. Playing in a trio format, you can do anything. And in a way, that freedom to do anything, because there’s no piano or anybody outlining what’s happening harmonically, can almost be like handcuffs … and it’s a thing that I struggle with a lot. I struggled with it last night on this gig! In this type of setting, you want to fill in all the space because it feels emptier than it normally does if there’s someone comping for you. And the way that he plays on this, there’s a lot of melody in there but you can also tell that, saxophone-wise, he’s got a lot together, and it’s very interesting to listen to from that perspective as well.

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I know you played Monk’s “Ask Me Now” on your Twio record. And part of why I picked this is to hear your thoughts in terms of Adam’s approach to a Monk tune in this kind of format versus your own. 
Sometimes when people play Monk tunes … they play a little looser because there’s something special about the way that he wrote music; it has so much personality in it. It’s something about the rhythm that Monk uses that’s kind of inspiring. That’s why people love to play his music. So if we’re talking specifically about “Ask Me Now” and this “We See” track, I think we’re both inspired by that same sense of personality in the song, and if you listen to the rest of Adam’s record and you listen to the rest of mine, we play differently on the Monk songs as compared to the other stuff. And I think it’s just that inspiration that you get from the song. They’re all incredible. There’s not one of them—even the ones that are really hard for me to play—[where I feel I can’t] come up with stuff just based on the melody. It just falls in all the right places and it’s really genius work.

2. Myron Walden
“Giving” (In This World: To Feel, Demi Sound). Walden, tenor saxophone; Jon Cowherd, Fender Rhodes; Mike Moreno, guitar; Chris Thomas, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2007.

BEFORE: [Listens to the track for more than two minutes] I only lived in New York for two years, from 2003 to 2005, and Myron was my favorite saxophone player and I got to know him really well then. I’m not an equipment person. I never change [the types of] mouthpieces and reeds [I use]. But he’s been there for every decision I’ve made like that and he’s encouraged me to play certain things—a mouthpiece, all that type of stuff.

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Maybe the best concert that I ever saw was when he was playing with Brian Blade’s Fellowship band at Joe’s Pub. I don’t remember the year, but Wayne Shorter’s biography [Footprints by Michelle Mercer] had just come out and for the release they had two acts. Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke played duo and then the Fellowship band played after that. That concert was my first time seeing Fellowship live, it was like one of those dream-come-true moments, and Myron was so ridiculous.

So he’s been my favorite alto player for a long time. And around that same time he was starting to play tenor. He was really, like really, into it, checking out all this different stuff, getting down to the details of what kind of horn he wanted to play. With saxophone players, we all know that most people play vintage horns or vintage-inspired horns. There’s something about these old Selmers—Mark VIs and the Balanced Actions—that everyone loves. Coltrane played them. That’s part of why people want them, but there’s also the different metal, the weight of them, they’re broken in, all that. And Myron was very specific about not wanting to play one of those horns because he wanted to develop his own sound. He was just like, “Man, anytime I pick up a Mark VI, it feels like it’s already been claimed by all of these different people.” So I remember he was getting into Keilwerth horns and he was very, very, very particular about all of the details.

I know he started two bands: He did this one and then he had a Stanley Turrentine band, which was, I believe, an organ trio. But this record is great. It’s incredible writing. Mike Moreno’s on it playing guitar. He sounds great on it … and Myron just has a way of shaping solos and building intensity and then keeping it there for longer than anybody can. It’s just sound and lyricism. He’s a master of that.

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Can you discuss how difficult it is to make something out of music that slow and to be that patient in building on it?
If you haven’t done it, I don’t even know if you can explain what it’s like when you’re building a solo, especially at that tempo, and you’re trying to think about playing melodically and playing ideas that connect to one another and bringing a rhythm section along to build with you at your pace. There isn’t an equivalent to that. It would almost be like if you’re trying to cook Thanksgiving turkey. You know how when people really do it well, and it’s not dried out, there are all these things to do and it just takes a long time and you have to be very patient when you do them? First of all, preheating the oven. And it’s hot for 30 minutes before you even put something in. And you’ve marinated and basted it. And you’re on it the whole time. The focus that it takes to do that [is significant]. If you space out or fall asleep for 30 minutes and miss part of it, it’s ultimately not going to work out the way you want. And that’s the same thing. It’s focused and you have foresight. I think to do it successfully, and the way Myron does, it takes an incredible amount of experience. You already know that if you take this route, it may cause this reaction from a rhythm section. And then beyond that, it’s knowing the people you’re playing with. You know that this specific person will think about this if I play one way or if I play in this register. And part of Myron’s brilliance is just his use of the whole range of the instrument. So on tenor he’s going from a low A-flat and it’s really kind of limitless to where he goes. And he takes his time spacing that out. He doesn’t just use it all at once. So he’s thinking and there’s focus there and you stick to the plan and trust that it’s going to work out. He’s good at that. Very good. 

“You’re not just going to come across Arnett Cobb the way everyone listens to music now. He’s not going to be on Spotify’s State of Jazz or Jazz Currents on Apple Music, you know what I mean?”

3. Arnett Cobb
“Funky Butt” (Funky Butt, Progressive). Cobb, tenor saxophone; Derek Smith, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ronnie Bedford, drums. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: [Listens for less than 30 seconds] We were talking about this album last night.

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You were talking about this album last night?
Yeah. Bill Stewart was saying this is one of his dad’s favorite saxophone players. It’s Arnett Cobb.

Do you feel a connection to that whole Texas tenor lineage, being from Houston?
Yeah. I feel the connection because everybody that I grew up around, all of the local teachers and the professional musicians, they would all talk about Arnett Cobb. And my teacher, Conrad Johnson, who was a local legend who they made a movie about [called Thunder Soul], had a musical relationship with Arnett Cobb, and he would always talk to me about him and play all of that information.

When I think about Texas tenor, it’s about style and sound. The style, it’s just clever. They’re playing things that nobody else is playing and the sound that they play it with—even never having seen Cobb play live, I know it just fills any kind of room, you know what I mean? And that was the thing for me, being from Houston and not being clever, first of all, but also not having a sound. I feel like, in that way, I’m kind of disconnected because I don’t have that thing. And that’s what I always grew up being around. Everyone was talking about sound, sound, sound, sound, sound. And I remember when I first got to college I met Dayna Stephens, and when he played I was like, “Oh! Now I can see it! [Chuckles] This is what they’re talking about.” But yeah, Arnett Cobb. The sound is incredible. So that’s the main thing for me.

I feel like he’s not a figure who’s discussed often today. Maybe musicians talk about him, but he’s not spoken about in broader circles.
I think you’re right. Part of it is because most musicians don’t get to spend time around people that are a little older—musicians that have really listened to all of this stuff. Left to our own devices [we don’t branch out]. When I was in high school, I just listened to Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, and it was that all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Had my teacher not told me about this, I never would have heard it. And then being around Bill and Larry [Grenadier], we did a tour recently and on all of these long train rides they would just, in passing, talk about [older albums they were listening to]. I remember being around Jason Marsalis too, who’s like an encyclopedia. And if you aren’t around that, there’s so much music to listen to, so how would you ever really be pointed in the right direction? Arnett Cobb is somebody that people would need to tell you about because you’re not just going to come across him the way that everyone listens to music now, with playlists. He’s not going to be on Spotify’s State of Jazz or Jazz Currents on Apple Music, you know what I mean? He’s not going to be in lessons because it’s going to be Trane and Sonny Rollins and the ones that we all know. So people need to talk about these guys more often. He’s a really important guy, for sure.

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4. Stanley Turrentine
“Salt Song” (Salt Song, CTI). Turrentine, tenor saxophone; Eumir Deodato, Horace Parlan, Richard Tee, keyboards; Eric Gale, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Billy Cobham, drums; Airto Moreira, percussion; Julius Brand, Paul Gershman, Julie Held, Leo Kahn, Harry Katzman, Joe Malin, violins; Harold Coletta, viola; Charles McCracken, Alan Shulman, cellos. Recorded in 1971.

BEFORE: [Listens closely for more than three minutes] Okay. That’s what I was waiting for, that sound. Maybe I’m wrong, but Stanley?

AFTER: Okay. Wow. I’ve never heard that before. And also that’s a hard one to pick out because I usually don’t picture Stanley playing on major songs. Everything’s usually minor, or at least that’s how I picture it. [Sees album cover] Oh, wait. I’ve seen this record before. Maybe I’ve heard some of it, but that piece doesn’t sound familiar to me. It was his vibrato that I was picking up on earlier, but then, when I started talking, he did this thing in F that confirmed my suspicion.

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I’ve listened a lot to Stanley in the last few years, and that was actually tied into Indiana University because [guitarist] Dave Stryker is there, and Dave used to play with Stanley. When I was teaching at IU, Dave started calling me for gigs and then, eventually, I did a recording with him. And he would talk about his time with Stanley and we would play some of his songs … and I never had anything to play on them. They were all slow or they’d have a certain feel to them and I felt very unprepared. So I started listening to a lot of Stanley, which I had not done in a while. He’s an incredible guy, the sound and feeling and time feel and the cool things that he does with false fingerings all over the horn. He’s pretty recognizable. But he’s also less talked about. Not to the level of Arnett Cobb, but still not mentioned too often.

I agree. Everyone throws out Sugar, but once you go beyond that, a lot of people just don’t talk about him.
I actually have a picture from when I met him. I met Stanley Turrentine in high school at the IAJE Convention.  I believe it was Atlanta. So I was in 10th grade in 1996 … and he does not look pleased with whatever I said to him beforehand. But it was very cool to meet him. He was on With the Tenors of Our Time, that Roy Hargrove record which was one of my favorite albums at the time, and I remember going up to him and, right before we took the picture, saying, “I love you on With the Tenors of Our Time.” And I feel like he was just thinking, “What about all of the other stuff I’ve done?!” But yeah, it’s funny.

Walter Smith III and Stanley Turrentine
A young Walter Smith III (left) with Stanley Turrentine, 1996 (photo courtesy of Walter Smith III)

5. Martial Solal/Johnny Griffin
“Hey Now” (In and Out, Dreyfus). Solal, piano; Griffin, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 1999.

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BEFORE: [Listens until saxophone exits and piano solo begins] I hesitate to guess on this one. There was a point where I thought maybe I caught something. So I’m guessing, if it is who I think it is, that it’s way later in his career. Is it Johnny Griffin?

AFTER: Oh, wow. Okay. So like I said, in high school I mostly only listened to Kenny and Branford and Josh Redman and all of those guys. But actually my favorite record during that time, and still to this day, is Thelonious in Action, recorded live at the Five Spot [in 1958]. Johnny Griffin plays “Rhythm-A-Ning” and he plays this incredible long solo on the rhythm changes there. Something he played on the bridge of that tune—the way he phrased it, floating with an airy tone—sounded [like something I just heard here]. But it makes sense that this was like 40 years later, the same guy. That’s incredible. Wow. I’ve never heard this. Beautiful.

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.