“If you’ve put an ear to some of the most talked-about jazz bands of the last few years, you’ve likely heard saxophonist Walter Smith III,” writes NPR’s Patrick Jarenwattananon. He’s “one of the hottest saxophonists on the postmodern scene,” proclaims the London Evening Standard. Perhaps best known as the front-line foil to the Blue Note recording artist (and Jazz Gallery veteran) Ambrose Akinmusire, Walter has performed with every from Jason Moran, Terence Blanchard, and Eric Harland to Destiny’s Child, Bilal, and Lauryn Hill, not to mention a rapidly growing number of others. He’s also released three albums under his own name: Casually Introducing (Fresh Sound), Live In Paris, (Space Time), and III (Criss Cross).
Walter brings his own group to our stage this weekend for a two-night run on Friday and Saturday. The band features the guitarist Matthew Stevens, the pianists Taylor Eigsti (Friday) and Fabian Almazan (Saturday), the bassist Harish Raghavan, and the drummer Clarence Penn.
We caught up with Walter a few weeks ago during his travels across the pond, and he was kind enough to answer a few of our questions. Without further ado, Walter Smith III speaks:
What have you been up to lately? What have you got coming up?
The beginning of 2013 is hectic. I’m in the middle of a UK tour with my group for two weeks, and then I’ll be recording a couple albums with some great French musicians for a week in France. After that, I’m on to Chicago to play with Dave Douglas for a night, then headed to NYC to play with the NEXT Collective. Our album [Cover Art] comes out on Concord Records on the day of the show and should be really cool. Then, I’m off to Milan with Dave Douglas again and right back to Boston for NPR/WBGO’s The Checkout Live with my group, and that brings us to The Gallery gigs on the 8th & 9th. Only about 5 days off during that stretch. Fun, fun!
Tell us about about your early exposure to and training in music growing up in Houston. Can you recall a memorable musical experience you had during that period?
My father taught band and I attended his elementary school. I started on violin in kindergarten and then began studying the clarinet and the saxophone in second grade. The funniest thing I remember from that early time is that I challenged a fifth grader for 1st chair in the sax section on our part to [Bobby Helm’s] “Jingle Bell Rock” because I knew she had been playing the rhythm incorrectly, and I won!
When and why did you decide to become a musician?
I officially decided to do it in twelfth grade, after lots of encouragement from my teachers and peers. Also, winning an award from the Young Arts Foundation kind of made me want to pursue music in college and beyond.
You’ve apprenticed under a lot of great musicians – Jason Moran, Terence Blanchard, Eric Harland, etc. Pick a memorable story from one of those experiences and let us hear it.
Moran once found a YouTube clip of me playing rhythm changes at Berklee. I was just regurgitating all this stuff that I had been learning, and he sent me a long email about things to think about and check out. He also sent me some recordings of things that really helped me get my stuff together. Safe to say that I haven’t played like that since then. Also they won’t take the clip off of YouTube!
Tell us about the band you’ll be bringing to The Gallery this weekend.
The band includes Taylor Eigsti, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; and Clarence Penn, drums.
I’ve known Taylor for a long time and we’ve played together a lot in Eric Harland’s band. I’ve grown to love his approach to music more and more as I listen to his playing on records, like Gretchen [Parlato]’s Lost and Found and also my current favorite song to listen to titled “The Art Teacher” from Taylor’s album Daylight to Midnight. Love it. I’ve played with Harish almost every day it seems like for the last two years with Ambrose Akinmusire’s band. He always plays with a lot of energy and creativity and I really enjoy playing with him. I see Clarence in airports all over the world and here and there at festivals, but I’ve never had the chance to play with him. I grew up listening to him and have always wanted to [do something together], and when this stuff came up it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
We’ll be performing all original music; some from my last album, and a bunch of new stuff. I’ve been trying to really work on composition and on extending my songs and melodies with several sections, more so than on my previous projects.
When can we expect a new WSIII album, and what might that sound like?
I’ll be recording a new album this summer for Concord and you can expect that at the top of 2014. Hopefully we can expect it to sound good!
List a few albums you’re listening to these days: