Ahead of the upcoming Melbourne International Jazz Festival, we thought we’d have a bit of a chat to find out more about Texas-born tenor man, Walter Smith III
MJ You’re from Texas originally, which is not a place necessarily associated with jazz. How did you first become introduced to the genre, and what are some of your early experiences and influences?
WS Growing up, we had a lot of local people that were up and coming. We would have people come by the school, like a Jason Moran, Chris Dave and Eric Harland. We had that direct connection to the guys in New York who were doing everything we wanted to do. But we had the local scene, which was full of lots of great musicians. So there was a lot of inspiration around.
MJ How do you think that affected the way you thought about jazz? In the Mersey Beat movement in the UK, a lot of the young musicians, some of whom would go on to become Beatles, didn’t have access to a lot of great music but, like you were mentioning, they really fed off and taught each other. Is that something you think would have affected the way you play if you’d been brought up in New York or LA or Chicago or somewhere with a more defined scene?
WS Our influences were pretty much what we handpicked from records. I listened to a lot of Trane and Charlie Parker and Lester Young. Those were my big saxophone influences. But outside of that, I was more interested in the guys that were from Houston. It was Chris Dave playing with Kenny Garrett, and Eric Harland playing with McCoy at that time, and he played with Joe Henderson around that time too. Moran and Harlan both played with Greg Osby, so I grew up being really influenced by music that was happening, being made currently by that kind of scene.
“Our influences were pretty much what we handpicked from records…”
MJ Are there a lot of Houston players that you would associate these characteristics with?
WS Yeah, I think so. I was in the same grade with great electric bass player Mark Kelley, who now plays with The Roots, and Kendrick Scott, who I think is one of the most unique drummers out there now. And then, the grade ahead of me in school was Robert Glasper, and the guys that were younger than us- Jamire Williams, he’s a ridiculous drummer. Same thing with Ambrose (Akinmusire) and Howard Wiley, Dayna Stephens, Taylor Eigsti, Justin Brown, Julian Lage- all those guys are in that same boat. They grew up listening to what they listened to, and, well, they’re leaders of their generation in terms of being original voices.
MJ How would you describe your own style of playing? If you were to try to categorise it, how would you explain your concept and approach to the saxophone?
WS I would say it’s very grounded in an old sensibility, but with a few seemingly random choices that might not necessarily go along with whatever the history of saxophone is. So, just like a quirky version of something that you already heard before.
MJ The thing that really strikes me when listening to you, is your use of articulation. Particularly in really fast phrases, it doesn’t diminish at all or get sloppy. Is that something you’ve deliberately worked on or is it something you’ve taken from other players?
WS Definitely. I went to Berklee College of Music, and really started studying a lot of older guys. Von Freeman, and Johnny Griffin, thinking about all the tempos that those guys were playing and the ideas, and trying to emulate that kind of style keeping it as clean as I could at faster tempos. I have a weird embouchure, which contributes to the fact that I have to really concentrate on articulation.
MJ Did you have a particular player that you looked up to growing up ?
WS It was the big three for me growing up. It started out as Charlie Parker, but then once I got to high school, it was equal parts Josh Redman, Kenny Garrett and Branford Marsalis. That was the thing I was going for, learning music and trying to play like them over it.
MJ Can you remember during the learning process, a piece of advice that someone said to you that had a big impact on your way of playing or thinking?
WS The first one that popped into my head was Jason Moran. He saw some YouTube video from my time at Berklee. Playing a rhythm changes with a band, and just playing constant eighth notes through the whole thing and not being very adventurous harmonically or rhythmically. He just sent me an email saying, “I watched this video of you. Have you ever thought about these things”? While I had thought about them, nobody ever just said it to me like that. It made me think that, stuff that you’re playing all the time, someone’s listening.
The other person around that same time, Aaron Goldberg was touring with Josh Redman, and I got to meet them and know them a little bit . I was having a conversation with Aaron about some guys and some records, and I was like, “Man, yeah I don’t really like that”. He said, “You just named three people that are some of the most respected musicians ever, and you don’t like it. You need to listen to it with different ears”. He was saying, humble yourself before you listen to it. He really made me think it’s not all supposed to be perfect. This is how they wanted it to be…. Everybody’s not coming from the same place.
“It’s not all supposed to be perfect. This is how they wanted it to be… Everybody’s not coming from the same place.”
MJ You’re coming out to Australia shortly for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. What do you enjoy most about coming out here?
WS Yes, I was out there last year. We went to the Sydney festival and that was amazing. We played three or four times in different venues . We even got to see Chaka Khan, who I’d never seen before, and that was pretty amazing! Besides that, we had some good food. We had some great coffee. That was the supreme thing that we found… Really nice espressos.
MJ You’ll be playing with your quintet while you’re here. Can you talk a bit about the band and the music you’ll be playing?
WS I recorded an album last year, and it came out in September of 2014, called Still Casual. It has ten or eleven original compositions that I wrote in the last year and a half for this band. I wrote it in a way that I was trying to make myself play a little bit more mature. This is, so far, my best effort in terms of writing music and having a whole program of things that go together. We’ll be playing the music from that, and the band that we’ll be playing with, two of the guys from the album will be there. The pianist, Taylor Eigsti, Harish Raghavan, bassist, and we’ll be joined by Julian Lage on guitar, and Eric Harland on drums. Incidentally we also play together in Eric Harland’s band, which is called Voyager.
MJ You do work with a lot of the guys from your band in different settings. How do you feel that your role or the music differs depending on who the bandleader is at any given time?
WS I think everyone has a different approach to composition. I know I play totally different when I’m playing my music, and Eric’s music, or whoever else’s, and it’s the same with everyone else in the band. Whoever the leader is, they just bring a different vibe to what they want from you.
MJ You’ve got four albums now under your belt as bandleader, and a whole heap more as a sideman. What direction do you see yourself heading over the next ten years or so?
WS I have a couple of projects in mind. I have four of my own, but it seems like I’ve done the same album four times so far. Moving forward, I’m just trying to really make decisions based on stuff that I’d want to listen to. It’s gonna be stuff that I find that I can sit down and listen to repeatedly, not just something that I hear one time through and I’m done. I have some ideas for some stuff with different instrumentation, strings and a couple of other horns.
“Moving forward, I’m just trying to really make decisions based on stuff that I’d want to listen to.”
MJ So when you don’t have your musician hat on, what do you actually like to listen to for recreation?
WS I find lately that I’ve been going back to albums from formative years. They just have that special feeling where you know every second of every track on there. So I’ve been going back looking at some of those Josh Redman albums, Mark Turner albums from back then, but lately I’ve been checking out Becca Stevens new album, Perfect Animal. I’ve been checking out the new Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly. I have a lot of friends that were a part of putting that together so it’s also cool to see them doing that. And also I’ve been checking out this duo out of LA called Nowa.
The Walter Smith III Quintet will be performing at Bennett’s Lane on May 29 as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival