Matthew Stevens & Walter Smith III: Finding Common Ground

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The friendship that exists between Matthew Stevens (left) and Walter Smith III dates back when they were both members of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s band during the mid-to-late aughts.

(Photo: Pierce Johnson)

Even when speaking with Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens on Zoom — with the tenor saxophonist being in Boston and the guitarist in Pittsburgh—you can feel the deep love between the two.

Smith, 41, sometimes uses his wry humor to deliver a lighthearted zinger toward Stevens, 40, in ways that suggest a big brother–little brother dynamic. Their friendship dates back when they were both members of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s band during the mid-to-late aughts.

When they performed with Scott in New Orleans, Smith and Stevens were roommates. Smith, who grew up in Houston, Texas, remembers Stevens teasing him about his attire. “It was my first time buying my own clothes outside of Texas. So, I was trying not to look like I was from Texas but not really knowing or being able to afford the styles of the East Coast. So, it started off with him just making fun of me. And the friendship grew over the years. But it’s funny how the tables have turned,” Smith recalled with a winking dig.

Stevens admired Smith’s playing before they had joined Scott’s band. At the time, they both attended Berklee College of Music. “Before we were even playing together, I was always like, ‘Man, that’s someone I really want to play with,’” Stevens said. “His playing genuinely connected with me. It went beyond just his playing being impressive. His music made me feel something. It’s really amazing, profound, and beautiful to me. Of course, the more you get to know somebody, the closer the friendship becomes as you grow, the music grows with it. It just flowers.”

“So, obviously I’m just doing him a favor by playing with him,” joked Smith in response.

All kidding aside, Smith appreciates Stevens’s guitar playing because he strums things that Smith wouldn’t imagine doing himself. And that forces Smith to listen better. “I’m almost always drawn to people who have different influences and who play differently than if I imagined myself playing guitar or piano,” Smith said. “They make decisions that aren’t anywhere in the ballpark of the things that I would play. That really gets me outside of what I’m comfortable with. So, the way that Matt comps, and the energy that he plays with, make sense to me, but on another plane.”

For almost two decades, the two have developed a musical rapport that elevates them in guitar/saxophone spheres, such as those occupied by Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall or, perhaps, Joe Lovano and John Scofield. Smith and Stevens’ accord is best described by the title of their co-piloted ensemble, In Common. The project finds them leading a cohort of guest musicians with unexpected lineups. The first iteration, released in 2018, showcased a very young Joel Ross on vibraphone, playing with drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Harish Raghavan. Two years later, Smith and Stevens led a new combo consisting of bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Nate Smith and a very young pianist Micah Thomas.

This time around, two NEA Jazz Masters —drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Dave Holland — anchor In Common III (Whirlwind) as it also welcomes pianist Kris Davis, an artist of Stevens and Smith’s generation.

In Common’s intergenerational dynamic has been constant throughout its existence. By recruiting Carrington and Holland, two established titans, the leaders flip the script. Within that lineup, though, there’s deeper connective tissue. Stevens has a been a charter member of Carrington’s Social Science group. Both Carrington and Holland have performed and/or recorded with Davis. Carrington and Holland have performed together. Nevertheless, the music on In Common III emits the casual freshness of an afternoon dinner party with great conversationalists.

“Terri has been a mentor to me and someone whom I’ve admired,” Stevens said. “She has a certain way of playing that at times sounds different from her own generation. She has this way of playing time that is unique to some of the people who mentored her like Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Then there’s her open-mindedness and desire to evolve. I know this from working with her on her own music. She’s just relentless in terms of wanting to try new things and discover new stuff.”

“Dave also has that,” he continued. “And he’s almost 20 years older than Terri. But not all musicians of that generation are that way. They all don’t have that intangible quality of feeling and time that are so specific to when they came of age combined with the hunger, open-mindedness and desire to try new stuff. And they ground younger people as well. It’s a rare and precious thing.”

In turn, Holland and Carrington recognize the benefits of playing with younger musicians because it affords them new ways of thinking artistically. “First of all, it’s a pleasure to play with musicians on their level, never mind whatever generation they are from,” Holland said. “The ages of the musicians don’t concern me that much, really. But there is a very positive thing that happens when you get different generations [of musicians] playing together because we’re bringing different experiences from different time periods — things that we grew up listening to, the kinds of people we’ve had a chance to play with and learn from. That all leads to a very fertile situation.”

“Walter and Matt are two of the hippest and talented musicians of their generation,” Carrington added. “They are originals who have created a recognizable sound that their peers and the musicians coming after them gravitate to. I love the generational concept they have going on with the In Common recordings.”

It was Davis, though, who provided the crucial impetus for the latest edition of the project. At first, Stevens and Smith weren’t sure if they were going to feature piano this time around. Stevens said that Davis made the perfect choice because she runs in “totally different circles” of musicians than he and Smith do.

“No one is expecting Kris on this record,” Stevens explained. “People would wonder, ‘Oh, I didn’t know she even knew Matt and Walter.’ It’s fun to disrupt that bubble that people expect to see certain musicians existing in exclusively. I know Kris’ playing; she can do anything. I was also excited to hear her musical perspectives brought into a context that she doesn’t often record in. I knew that she would bring something into it differently than someone who would have been more an obvious choice.”

In Common III begins in similar fashion as the previous two recordings: with a bracing guitar and tenor saxophone duet. In this case, it’s Smith’s “Shine,” a gleaming ballad on which Stevens initiates with rugged, bucolic guitar riffs and succinct melodicism. Soon after, Smith’s tenor enters with a sauntering counterpart melody. As the song progresses, Stevens and Smith melodically intertwine, sometimes running parallel, other times branching off then engaging in subtle, antiphonic banter.

Smith originally intended “Shine” to appear on one of his solo albums as a tribute to some of the musicians who passed away in 2020 — specifically Chick Corea, Ellis Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Wallace Roney and McCoy Tyner. “When I composed it, I was hearing a certain thing on it. The starting point for it was the pandemic and for all the people who passed away. It was to shine a light on them. But then it became a tribute to some musicians who died, but not necessarily because of COVID.”

A song that underscores the pandemic is Stevens’ iridescent “Orange Crush,” on which he constructs a hypnotic ostinato on guitar that quickly becomes the rhythmic launching pad for Smith’s saxophone laments. The song’s giddy-yet-circular motif, paired with Smith’s solemn asides, deftly articulates both the desire for escapism as well as some of the exasperating redundancies of activities that we all endured.

“I wrote that song in March 2020, thinking that we still would be recording in June 2020. ‘Orange Crush’ was the first thing I wrote for this record,” said Stevens, noting that they didn’t record the album until June 2021. “I was just thinking about the individual musicians and something interesting that could fold onto itself between the piano and guitar. It was really fun for me to write because more often than not you don’t have the opportunity to write for specific people.

“Matt sort of broke the rules with that song,” Smith quipped with a laugh. “The songs for In Common are supposed to be just one page or two pages, and sight-readable. And that song was like eight pages.”

Smith’s soul-stirring “After” is another pandemic-theme gem. Here, Davis begins with gorgeous piano cascades that give way to Smith oozing a wistful melody buoyed by an enchanting groove from the rhythm section. Again, the interaction astounds. But it’s made all the more wondrous thanks to Davis’ high-alert accompaniment, which fluctuates between the concussive and curvaceous.

The saxophonist explained that the title conveys the frustrations of having hope of venues and other social activities reopening, then dashed because of because of a new variant. “It’s the thought of after all of high infection rates and the vaccines, the shutdowns would be over and everything is going to cool,” Smith explained. “Or after this other thing happens, then everything is going to be cool.”

Other highlights include Smith’s sparkling “For Some Time,” Stevens’ “Red,” which contains rotating odd meters, and the invigorating “Loping,” another Stevens composition that he penned with Holland and Carrington’s flinty rhythmic connection in mind.

The concept behind In Common germinated in 2017 when Stevens had a couple of studio dates left over from one of his projects and Smith had just received a small faculty grant from Indiana University, where he was then teaching. They were also looking to do something fun outside of their own respective bands that would be unexpected.

“So, we just landed on Joel, Harish and Marcus, people from a different scene of musicians but hadn’t recorded together at that time. The idea was to have a vehicle to write some stuff but would be different from what we would write for our own individual groups and just try to capture the moment,” Stevens said.

The first version of In Common recorded an enormous amount of music — some of it cogent, some of it inchoate, Stevens recalled. “When we were listening back to it, we couldn’t make heads or tails out of any of it, because there was so much left to interpretation. We chose the stuff that sounded the best and was the most surprising to us in a positive way. People seemed to respond to it. And we had a lot of fun doing it. The concept just grew out of that.”

Stevens calls the results “happy accidents.” From there, they built the group’s modus operandi.

“It has grown into this thing that plays into this deep well of talent and subtle differences of dialect that’s within our musical community,” Stevens explained. “That’s something that I find really interesting to hear, because on all three albums, Walter and I are the constants. We’re writing the music. We’re the core of this thing. But what’s orbiting around it is changing.”

“Having lived on the West Coast for so long, the bands that I play with had been going on for a long time,” Smith added. “So, it’s great to see people together that don’t necessarily run in the same circles. Some of my favorite records are the ones in which I say, ‘Wait! They played together?’” DB



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