If you keep up with current developments in jazz, you’ve heard the five players in this collective ensemble in their roles as sidemen in cutting-edge bands: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Harish Raghavan with Ambrose Akinmusire; guitarist Matthew Stevens with Linda May Han Oh; vibraphonist Joel Ross with Marquis Hill; drummer Marcus Gilmore with Vijay Iyer. In Common is one of those jazz projects that was created for a recording session and may never be repeated. In press notes, Stevens and Smith make some unusual admissions. Stevens says, “We decided to go into the studio with music that could be quickly interpreted.” Smith says that the relative simplicity was “liberating.”
The plan may sound modest, but it sets up these talented players for success. In Common rivets your attention from the opening improvised duo prelude, “freefive.” Smith invents veering melodies while Stevens strums incitements. Then the compositions by Smith and Stevens begin and the full ensemble enters and the album gets more interesting. Stevens’s “YINZ” and Smith’s “foreword” are representative: clean, graceful, open-ended forms for improvisers, all with touches of unresolved mystery. Given the personnel, it is not surprising that solos are compelling. Smith’s lines have clarity but also a suspenseful sense of power in reserve. Stevens is all about the encompassing sonic lushness of which only a guitar is capable. Ross may have more fresh ideas about the vibraphone than anyone since Warren Wolf.
What is surprising about this ensemble that is not a working band is the depth of its integration. No one solos by himself for long. They listen closely and respond to one another in the moment with complementary or contrasting commentary. On Smith’s “ACE,” Ross and Smith offer two concurrent lines of thought. Each keeps adjusting to, and incorporating, the evolving content of the other.