The cover of tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens’ second co-led album is hilarious: It’s literally the same as the first In Common, but with pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Nate Smith’s faces replacing those of Joel Ross, Harish Raghavan, and Marcus Gilmore. Is it a harbinger, one might wonder, of the music within? Same stuff, different faces?
As a matter of fact, it isn’t. For one thing, Smith and Stevens’ writing is tighter and more memorable on In Common 2. Smith’s “Clem” makes the most of a two-note motif and develops it in an unusual but logical and easily followed progression; the overcaffeinated rhythm section of Stevens’ “Opera” turns out to be fun instead of confounding, and an intriguing foil for the half-time sax/acoustic guitar lines. If there are two less digestible tunes on the record (“van der Linde” and “General George Washington,” both by Smith), they prove fertile ground for improvisations—for Smith and Thomas on the former, Stevens and Smith on the latter—that are all the more impressive for the obstacles they navigate.
The overall treatment is different too, although Smith shows much the same level of creative energy that Gilmore did on the first album. Throughout, Thomas is busier and more harmonically rich than Ross’ thoughtful but somewhat sparse vibraphones. This stronger presence pushes Oh’s bass into nearly subliminal territory—but what magic she works there. She brings a physical authority to the vamp (and subsequent variations) on Stevens’ “Cowboy,” and all but improvises a counterpoint to the guitarist’s solo on “Provinces.” Yes, Smith and Stevens are the leaders and star attractions, but their best decisions seem to be about the company they keep.