Blindfold Test: Walter Smith III

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Walter Smith III

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

After almost a full year as chair of Berklee College of Music’s Woodwind Department, 39-year-old tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III sat for his first Blindfold Test while in New York several months ago for a Village Vanguard engagement with the Bill Stewart Trio. A Houston native, Smith’s most recent leader date, TWIO (Whirlwind) features drummer Eric Harland, bassists Christian McBride and Harish Raghavan, and, on two tunes, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman.

Emmet Cohen

“On Green Dolphin Street” (Masters Legacy Series, Vol. 4: Emmet Cohen Featuring George Coleman, Self Release, 2019) Cohen, piano; George Coleman, tenor saxophone; Russell Hall, bass; Bryan Carter, drums.

Something about the rhythm section feels like a younger band, but the saxophone player is not in the same generation. Could it be George Coleman? It’s something in the sound, the way he plays the melody, some specific things he does towards the end of the form—though a lot of choices sound like someone of the younger generation. It was a strong solo—creative, too. From phrase to phrase, you don’t see what’s coming, and he’s interacting with the band. Emmet Cohen on piano?

Saxophone Summit

“Carousel” (Street Talk, Enja/Yellowbird, 2019) Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Greg Osby, alto saxophone; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone; Phil Markowitz, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

Osby. Mark Shim on tenor? Oh, Joe Lovano. So, Osby and Joe ... Liebman? So, that’s Billy Hart, Phil Markowitz and Cecil McBee. Whose tune is this? It’s great writing, very creative, as is Greg’s playing. I knew it was Osby from the intro; playing in the open section, his time is ridiculous, and his phrasing is cool. My ear is drawn to him through the whole thing. I’ve been listening to Greg since early in high school. I’m from Houston; all the Houston heroes—Jason Moran, Eric Harland—were in his band.

Joey DeFrancesco

“Soul Perspective” (In The Key Of The Universe, Mack Avenue, 2019) DeFrancesco, organ; Troy Roberts, tenor and soprano saxophone; Billy Hart, drums.

The saxophone sound is familiar, very full and even. Joel Frahm? My other guess, partly because his sound is similar—and because I’m guessing the organ is Joey DeFrancesco—is Troy Roberts. The saxophone does not inhibit Troy in any way; he moves around like it’s nothing. And I love that sound. Joey’s incredible. I don’t know anyone whose left hand is that independent.

Dayna Stephens Trio

“Faith Leap” (Liberty, Contagious Music, 2020) Stephens, tenor saxophone; Ben Street, bass; Eric Harland, drums.

That’s Dayna—Harland and Ben Street? I could tell Dayna 10 seconds in, from his sound—how he articulates, his inflections even when playing the melody. There’s a lot of patience. Great writer. Articulation might be the thing I mess around with most when I’m playing. A lot of my interest in that came from listening to Dayna, who was the first person I met when I got to Berklee. He does unique things, especially in the upper register, that tell you it’s him when he’s playing a melody.

Chris Speed Trio

“Yard Moon” (Respect For Your Toughness, Intakt, 2019) Speed, tenor saxophone; Chris Tordini, bass; Dave King, drums.

Is that a contrafact of “Diverse”? It’s in a different key—in F minor, and in 9. Going by the tenor sound—Chris Speed, who I saw play a couple of times in L.A. on a Monday night session he has with Jeff Parker. That’s killing. Great time. Creative. Hard tune to play, especially trio.

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