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Walter Smith III's 'Return to Casual' makes good on a promise

GEORGE CLARKE

It has been 17 years since saxophonist Walter Smith III released his auspicious debut on the Barcelona-based indie label Fresh Sound New Talent. The cover image of that album was stylized to evoke the look and feel of a classic Blue Note release — one in particular, Sam Rivers’ mid-‘60s gem Fuschia Swing Song, which Smith invoked with his opening track. The typography on the cover placed the album’s title before the artist name, so that it read: Casually Introducing Walter Smith III.

None of this backstory is strictly necessary to appreciate Return to Casual, Smith’s deeply poised first album as a leader for Blue Note. But as that title implies, there’s a thread connecting Smith’s two debuts, along with some keen self-awareness of how much ground he’s covered in between. What once registered as a signal flare of creative potential can now be understood as the absolute fulfillment of a promise.

Smith now serves as chair of the Woodwind Department at the Berklee College of Music, but he originally hails from Houston — where he came up alongside drummer Kendrick Scott and just behind the likes of pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Eric Harland. All of those exceptional players appeared on Casually Introducing, as did some newer compatriots like trumpet Ambrose Akinmusire, who had yet to make an album of his own. The subsequent time Smith spent in Akinmusire’s acclaimed quintet, roughly a decade ago, lends an air of welcome reunion to some choice moments on the new album: an amusingly titled “Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me,” for one, and a hyperdynamic “River Styx.”

But through much of the album, Smith is the only horn in a quintet attuned to his aerodynamic yet approachable vision of modern jazz. Along with Kendrick Scott — who in turn features Smith on his fine new Blue Note album, Corridors — the band includes Matt Stevens on guitar, Taylor Eigsti on piano, and Harish Raghavan on bass. This is the personnel on a live-in-studio video of “River Styx,” and on pieces of similar shifting detail, like a faintly indie-rockish “Pup - Pow” and a surging, not-at-all-quiet “quiet song.”

Smith has a relaxed yet ever-alert style on tenor saxophone; his natural inclination is to lay back with his phrasing, but he can shift at once into a fiery overdrive. His language as an improviser draws from a wealth of resources: not just canonical heroes like Wayne Shorter and the aforementioned Rivers, but also more recent innovators like Mark Turner. (On a brightly swinging tune called “lamplight,” he fleetingly calls Branford Marsalis to mind.) His way as a composer-bandleader is similarly rooted in the tradition, but Return to Casual marks his claim to a surefooted originality in that mode.

The album’s only non-original is a gorgeously subtle interpretation of Kate Bush’s “Mother Stands for Comfort,” from the Hounds of Love album. (Smith was turned on to the song by Akinmusire, a fact that should surprise no one.) Elsewhere there are hints of mischief beneath a polished exterior. The album’s opener, “Contra,” comes by its frenetic melodic line through a sly backdoor: Smith named the tune after a 1980s arcade game, and based the melody on the so-called Konami Code, which veteran gamers will recall as Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A.

It makes a considerable difference that Smith has so much mileage with his band mates — not just Scott and Raghavan but also Stevens, his co-leader in the group In Common, and Eigsti, who appeared on his 2014 album Still Casual, on Whirlwind Recordings. (By now you should be sensing a theme.) A track titled “K8 + BYU$” finds Eigsti trading billowing phrases at the piano with a guest, James Francies, on Fender Rhodes. (Francies went to the same high school as Smith’s whole Houston crew.)

The whole enterprise rings of cool sophistication in a small-group style that Smith and his contemporaries helped define, and then brought into the center of the jazz mainstream (to the extent that such a thing is still possible). In that sense, Return to Casual is not just a homecoming of sorts, but also an emphatic confirmation. Allow Smith to reintroduce himself? Casually speaking: Yeah, man.

Walter Smith III's Return to Casual is available now on Blue Note Records.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.