Walter Smith III: Playing It Straight

Saxophonist delves into old-school tunes and the trio format, with an assist from Eric Harland

Walter Smith III (photo by Jati Lindsay)

Walter Smith III’s fifth recording as a leader, TWIO (Whirlwind), is a nine-tune date featuring drummer Eric Harland, four tracks apiece with bassists Christian McBride and Harish Raghavan and, on two tunes, saxophonist Joshua Redman. It presents a radically different sound and concept from its four predecessors. The 37-year-old tenor saxophonist’s earlier albums, like III and Still Casual, showcased his au courant original music, chockablock with virtuosically executed metric modulations, gnarly lines and advanced harmonic structures. Conversely, on TWIO, Smith and partners interpret good-old-good ones of the less-traveled variety, on their own terms, in 4/4 time and eschewing deconstruction.

Asked about this shift, Smith—whose parents are eminent educators in his hometown of Houston—traced it to his burgeoning interest in teaching. That enthusiasm reached an inflection point three years ago, when he accepted a fulltime position at Indiana University. The move augmented an already complex career that has included increasing leader work and abundant employment as a first-call sideman with, among others, Harland, Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Chris Dave. –TED PANKEN

JAZZTIMES: Why, at this point, a record of tunes, after you’ve recorded so much original music over the years? It’s a very different presentation.

Walter Smith III: In the classroom, I got in the habit of talking about how to deal with functional harmony. I was listening to old records and learning tunes, and it got back on my radar as something to revisit. During high school in Houston I learned Kenny Garrett and Branford Marsalis pieces; [Garrett’s] Triology and [Marsalis’] The Dark Keys were my favorite trio records. But when I got to Berklee, the guys who were playing all the time—Wayne Escoffery, Jaleel Shaw, Bob Reynolds—knew hundreds of tunes. It became clear that if you wanted to play with them, or with the people they were playing with, that was the currency that was being traded in Boston.

People who knew you at Berklee remember you as having prodigious chops and being a very advanced player, but you seem to have deliberately taken the slow-and-steady approach in your development.

Maybe I could play a lot of stuff on saxophone at a young age, but I didn’t feel there was any depth or music in it. And when I would listen to people on records, I would just be blown away by how they were using their information. Since I went to Berklee for a music-ed degree, I didn’t take improvisation classes or study composition or get to play. So I wanted to learn on the road from people, whether they were peers who knew more about getting gigs and business, or more about composition. Getting to play with Terence Blanchard and asking him a million questions basically informed everything I knew at a certain point, and I built from there in my own study.

What was your process in putting together a recording of standards without a chordal instrument?

I wanted everyone to be comfortable playing on these tunes without falling into the standard way of playing them. Even though we’re making it like a jam session, I didn’t want it to feel like we’re playing a gig at a hotel, and I felt that someone comping might put me in that mindset. We recorded about 20 tunes, all one or two takes, and boiled it down to things that worked in a program. The program is under 50 minutes, but originally we were aiming for under 40 minutes, like two sides of an LP. Actually, after the first session with Christian and Eric, I thought it would be 25 minutes, with maybe two volumes. But after I did the second session with Harish on bass, the vibe was totally different, which I wanted, and we ended up using half Harish and half Christian.

How much mapping out did you do?

I started out arranging and reharmonizing every one of the songs into stuff I normally would write, but when rehearsals started, I realized that wasn’t the point of the album. So I just wrote out lead sheets to all the tunes, so we’d all be on the same page as far as changes and form. I didn’t want it to be saxophone solo/bass solo/trade fours, that kind of thing, so for every song I lined up exactly what would happen. Even on the live shows, I’m making sure on each particular tune we go for this or that; if something happens, that’s cool, but let’s aim for these things.

Both your parents are teachers. Was teaching something you felt directed toward for a long time? 

Coming out of high school, my goal was to teach, but I had a lot of opportunities to perform and tour, so it stopped being my main focus. But I was getting more opportunities to teach as a faculty adjunct or be a guest artist or artist-in-residence, and my wife suggested I look into it more deeply, so I applied for the Indiana position. I’m still based in Los Angeles, so I go back and forth. I’ve gotten to be so productive on an airplane, it’s a joke. I put in all the time before everything starts, which is a habit I’ve developed for composing and learning people’s music. Planning is key for me in everything.I’m not in a rush to do anything. I’ve accomplished a lot of things I’ve wanted to do, but if I hadn’t gotten to them yet, I wouldn’t be worried about it—there’s still time. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it.

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Preview, buy or download songs from the album TWIO by Walter Smith III on iTunes.