Walter Smith III - Return to Casual. Blue Note, 2023.
By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III’s new album Return to Casual is both a reference to a previous album and a trope that represents a feeling of contentment and hope in the midst of what we experienced the past three years.
Using the same musicians—Matt Stevens on guitar, Taylor Egisti on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet—Smith recorded Still Casual in 2014 during a period of confidence that developed through his associations with Akinmusire, fellow trumpeter Christian Scott (now Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah), and Scott. Smith’s trio album Twio was one of the best records in 2018, and he became part of a collective including Stevens that has produced the In Common recordings in 2018, 2020, and 2022.
What “casual” means to Smith is open to interpretation, perhaps a nod to his style, which attracts the listener in a more nuanced way, being a portion of the whole rather than pushing himself to a constant front-and-center attack. Yet, his music can be almost jarringly propulsive. His compositions provide significant openness for his ensemble mates and always engage a drummer who becomes the captain of the good ship Counterpoint in the Sea of Modality. And Scott proves to be a good captain with Raghavan as a quality first-mate.
The difference between the effort nine years ago and this new one is almost negligible; Still Casual is loaded with tunes that move in Smith’s medium-rhythmed matter, and Return to Casual, while sometimes beginning modestly and changing pace before rising to the occasion, is equally up front as the drummer Scott almost pleads for movement.
A good example is “Shine.” Egisti’s lovely intro leads to a shared moment with Stevens that brings Smith into the mix before Egisti is pushed into something like Bud Powell by the ubiquitous Scott’s insistence.
Another good example is the inscrutable selection, “Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me.” In this, Egisti’s dramatic one-chord riff is joined by Smith and Akinmusire’s rising cascade before they trade solos while Scott pounds and thrashes.
The only cover on the album is Kate Bush’s “Mother Stands for Comfort,” which begins with Smith and Egisti’s quiet rendition of the melody while Stevens plucks percussively. It closes with Smith soloing to an exotic, up-swung beat while Stevens’ muted notes suggest something more Caribbean.
When the ensemble wants to drive, the results are striking. “Quiet Song” is an ironic title for something where Smith blows upward from the start, joined in the sonic choir by an invigorated Stevens. The opening tune “Contra” teems with post-bop intensity, Smith sounding like a postmodern Dexter while comped by Egisti; Stevens steps in to match his friend.
Akinmusire’s best contribution is a scorching solo in the back half of “River Styx,” another driving venture that features a twin-horned arrangement.
One more ironic piece ends the album; “Revive” is a much quieter, devotional expression, a lovely duet with Egisti. Perhaps this is Smith’s homage to post-pandemic freedom, a sign of hope.
Walter Smith III’s road to respectability, while delayed a bit by the pandemic, has been built on a rising confidence and loyalty to an impressive class of postmodern players, especially Stevens and Scott. Return to Casual, his first album for Blue Note, is a sign of great things to come; this kind of casualness can be an attractive proposition.
Walter Smith III, Return to Casual. Blue Note, 2023.
Walter Smith III, saxophone
Matt Stevens, guitar
Taylor Egisti, piano and keyboards
Kendrick Scott, drums
Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org