‘In Common III’ – Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens

Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens started working together in 2017. This album is the third album of the In Common series and according to Walter Smith III “it’s longer, freer, and more spontaneous.” There is a formula to the In Common format in that the inventive one-page songs are written with specific musicians in mind: “The spotlight is on the community of musicians as a whole” Smith comments. “The general vibe is sculpted by the musicians’ interpretation of what we [Smith and Stevens] bring in.”

Graphic design by Dave Bush

The album consists of fifteen tracks ranging in length from one minute forty to five minutes twenty. ‘Shine’ opens the proceedings with a simple sounding melody played by guitar and sax with support from the bass of Dave Holland. Terri-Lynne Carrington then picks up the reigns as we move into ‘Loping’. Smith and Stevens share the main theme running through this track with Smith’s saxophone stretching out before Stevens takes over with his crisp guitar playing. ‘Oliver’ plays on a single riff over which electronic washes of sound are laid (the first-time electronic manipulation has been used in an In Common album) – this is the free improv influence of Kris Davis, another first for the series.

‘Hornets’, in contrast to ‘Oliver, has a nice vibe to it with sax, guitar and piano taking turns in moving the melody forward with Carrington’s subtle playing adding depth to the overall feel of the piece. A quick paced repeating phrase introduces ‘Orange Crush’. Smith plays wistfully over this constant phrase, which continues until its sudden end after the sax has dropped out. ’After’ has an optimistic feel about it, like something emerging from the shadows. I very much enjoyed the interplay between sax, guitar and piano as I did the supporting play from Holland and Carrington on bass and drums respectively.

‘Lite’ is another track making use of electronic manipulation that whirrs around as Smith plays an ethereal tentative, probing sax line. The mood lifts with ‘For Some Time’ with its up-tempo beat played with some style by Carrington. The interaction between sax, guitar, and piano is joyous and as the track faded out, I was left with the feeling that this tune could be taken further. Smith introduces ‘Shutout’ with short phrases against a low distortion sound. Davis pick-up the phrase on this cinematic dystopian style track, which I found quite unsettling.

‘Reds’ completely changes the mood with it dynamic sound. There is terrific bass solo from Dave Holland and drumming from Terri-Lynne Carrington. There is a lot to enjoy on this track. Apparently ‘Variable’ is written in such a way that in can “be played in many tempos, meters, and approaches but [this] was not discussed prior to recording. The sax of Smith holds the tune’s central theme while those around him play what they feel supports or contrasts: this gives the track an exploratory “freer-jazz” feel.

‘Prince July’ has a more straight-ahead jazz sensibility with Matthew Stevens driving the tune forward with some wonderful guitar playing. ‘Dust’ is the longest track on In Common III and benefits from being given the time to develop its concept. The playing here is sparse and takes on a contemporary classical music feel in structure. ‘Familiar’ is, stylistically, a familiar jazz sound with its easy-going bass and drum patterns with an overlay of delightful sax from Walter Smith III. Which brings us to track fifteen of this album. ‘Miserere’ is a reflective piece of writing that encourages the listener to begin winding down and think about what they have just heard over the last fifty-five-minute long album.

I do not have any musical theory experience to back up my album review and rely solely on my emotional response to how each individual track works within the album’s structure. This album is full of ideas and themes, it is dynamically varied in pitch, tone, and texture. Some tracks have the feel of a vignette, others of a fully formed picture, and yet others somewhere between the two. Some tracks seem to lead easily from one to the other, some are contrasts and yet the whole hangs together very well.

In Common III is a challenging album with a few “what if they had just…” moments: I like that, that “this may not be done with yet” feeling. Some may find this unnerving, but I do not always need to feel comfortable with what I listen to in order to enjoy what I am hearing. This is a thinking listener’s album so please excuse me while I go away and think before pressing the play button for another thought provoking listen through.

In Common III is out on the Whirlwind record label.

Musicians: Walter Smith III – saxophone; Matthew Stevens – guitar; Kris Davis – piano; Dave Holland – bass; Terri Lynne Carrington – drums.

Tracklist: 1. Shine. 2. Loping. 3. Oliver. 4. Hornets. 5. Orange Crush. 6. After. 7. Lite. 8. For Some Time. 9. Shutout. 10. Reds. 11. Variable. 12. Prince July. 13. Dust. 14 Familiar. 15. Miserere.

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