The Casual Side of Art with Walter Smith III


“The big thing was having multiple sections, ideas that develop slowly over time and don’t stray too far from an initial core idea,” Smith says of Return To Casual.

(Photo: George Clarke)

Walter Smith III finds compositional inspiration in unexpected — and amusing — places. As an example, consider the opening track of the 42-year-old tenor saxophonist’s Blue Note debut, Return To Casual, a whirling line titled “Contra,” named after the 1980s Nintendo video game he played as a child in Houston.

“It’s a writing prompt I thought of 10 years ago,” Smith explained on a Zoom call (his avatar is an image of Snoop Dogg superimposed on Kenny G blowing a soprano saxophone). Smith spoke from his home studio-office in Boston, where he’s chaired Berklee’s Woodwinds Department since 2019.

“You enter a code at the title screen to get extra lives. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B A B A start — I’ve sat down every few years to see what I can come up with. This version made me want to play it with people and not let it die on the piano bench. I spent four weeks writing the music for this record — 10 days on that one song.”

It’s not his first time dipping into the metaverse for material. Another video game from Smith’s earlier adulthood — Fallout 3 from 2008, which is set in a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. — inspired “Capital Wasteland” on his 2010 album III (Criss Cross). The personnel on that session included pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland, both graduates of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts who were there before Smith entered the school and functioned as “guardian angels” for him and classmates Kendrick Scott, Robert Glasper, Mike Moreno and Jamire Williams as they progressed into their early professional careers.

Also performing on III was trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, Smith’s frequent front-line partner over the past two decades. On Return To Casual, Akinmusire’s bravura solo captures the surging ebb and flow of “River Styx.” He dialogues at length with the leader on the eerie “Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me,” which Smith conceived as a “soundtrack” to the doomed aviatrix’s mysterious story. Both tracks display the mind-meld the two have shared on Smith’s first four leader dates, most recently the self-produced Still Casual, from 2014, where he worked with Akinmusire, Scott, guitarist Matthew Stevens, pianist Taylor Eigsti and bassist Harish Ragavan. Smith reassembled the group for a Return engagement that included guest James Francies on piano.

Smith conceived Return To Casual in late 2021, after the release of In Common 3 (Whirlwind), for which Smith and Stevens — a frequent partner since both played with Christian aTunde Adjuah Scott in the late ’00s — recruited pianist Kris Davis, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. It was the final installment of a trilogy conceived around, as Stevens put it, “recording interesting groups of people we knew would share an aesthetic and a dynamic, and highlighting the chemistry that could result from their playing quickly interpretable songs that we wrote.”

“The Village Vanguard offered a week,” said Smith, a month after fulfilling it happened in early February. “I proposed the band from the Still Casual album. I’ve grown as a composer, so I decided to revisit a few of the prompts I used then, and then record the music and make it a release week. Then Blue Note’s offer came in January 2022. I wrote everything in May, when I was home for four weeks, so everyone had it before summer tours and could sit with it before the session in August.

“The big thing was having multiple sections, ideas that develop slowly over time and don’t stray too far from an initial core idea. It can be as simple as a melodic device, or a feeling or a form, whatever it is — but try to stay within one thing and make a puzzle for us to play from. I’ve also been into rewriting old music and doing mashups — putting two things together.”

An example of the latter strategy is “K8 + BYU$.” It toggles between “Kate’s Song,” Smith’s tone parallel to Kate Bush from his 2007 leader debut, Casually Introducing (Fresh Sound), and “BYU$” from III, a sweet refrain with a stuttery, metrically shifting flow. On the original version of “Kate’s Song,” pianist Aaron Parks and Glasper, on keyboards, engage in a long, ascendent series of exchanges, setting up Smith’s furious tenor solo. On the mashup, though, Smith doesn’t solo, focusing primarily on keyboard phrase-trading between Eigsti on piano and another Houstonian James Francies on keyboards.

He sent Kendrick Scott different tracks to play over. “Each time he’d chiseled away unnecessary things and added things that should be there,” said Scott, who recruited Smith and Rogers to play trio on his new Blue Note CD, Corridors (see DownBeat’s May issue). “This record is a great representation of Walter’s writing, but also his badass playing. He’s put so much time into his sound, encompassing the tradition of the saxophone but also challenging what you think it should sound like. And he understands emotional content — what it is to tell a story during a solo, and how to stay in one space for a long time and not move. He’s always challenging himself, not going for stuff he knows, which has pushed his playing — and writing — to a different level.”

For Akinmusire, Return To Casual “feels like Casually Yours, but grown up and matured.”

“I met Walter in 2000, the first time I went to Boston, where I heard Walter with (trumpeter) Darren Barrett, who he was playing with regularly,” Akinmusire recalled. “The first thing he did to me was a joke. ‘Hey, man, come here — I heard about you.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, nice to meet you,’ and shook his hand. ‘You got something on your shirt.’ I looked down and he ...” Akinmusire raised his arm to his face, replicating the age-old prank.

“Walter was already playing a ton of saxophone,” he continued. “But it’s been interesting to see him develop his artistry over the years. He’s one of the most consistent people I know in his commitment to craft, the attention to detail and the beauty that’s always there in the way he constructs things, almost like an architect.”

Smith and Scott met more prosaically — at a school-sponsored ice cream social a week before both entered 9th grade. “Kendrick is my earliest reference for drums,” Smith said. “Everything I hear has him on it — the sound of his cymbals and his cymbal choices, the way he does fills and his time feel — whether he ultimately plays on it or not. We’d push each other. Kendrick wanted to play a Michael Brecker tune from Tales From The Hudson, so I learned each piece, all the solos. I’d ask the same of him. We’d learn all these Josh Redman tunes. I wanted to be Ron Blake in Roy Hargrove’s band and Tim Warfield in Nicholas Payton’s band — and I wanted to be in Terence Blanchard’s band. I never aspired to be a leader. I thought HSPVA was the ultimate level of everything. When I got to Berklee, I was disappointed because it couldn’t compare to what we’d done in high school as far as pushing ourselves.”

Smith credits HSPVA music director Robert Morgan for creating a culture of achievement. “He demanded a lot, but he also had his finger on the pulse,” Smith said. “He’d bring in guest artists who were relevant to the students’ interests, like Chris Dave. Seeing someone like him gives you a blueprint of what it means to be a professional musician. We were in and out of class all the time, seven or eight function gigs a week, contracted through the school, real professional stuff in 10th grade — at hotels, background music, holiday parties, one time at Marvin Hamlisch’s house.”

Houston’s Black churches offered another training ground. One year, Smith recalled, he played soprano saxophone for five or six services a week, often with Glasper and Scott. “At one, they’d play ‘Afro Blue’ for 30 minutes and then all the way to the other side,” he says. “Playing places was a completely different experience than people at music school playing for other music students. Our audiences didn’t respond to a sharp 11th. It was the energy, the emotion you play with — using the intellectual part to create the other thing. Learning that early on was huge.”

During high school, Smith took his first teaching position, at a local summer jazz workshop he’d attended since 5th grade, “where all the Houston musicians taught.” He’d assimilated fundamentals early on through his namesake father, a band director originally from New Orleans who’d studied with Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste — themselves brilliant educator-performers — at Southern University. “He was always at the piano, transcribing music and writing it out for our elementary school band,” Smith recalled. “Later he wrote me a solo for ‘Blue Bossa’ that I memorized, which is why an older saxophone player invited me to play my first gig with him at a McDonald’s. My father could explain stuff I didn’t necessarily understand the first time I heard it. He repaired my instrument. Anything you could want, he was there for.”

“Walter’s dad is a mellow person, but very focused on making sure his kids succeeded and that doing things the right way will get you far,” Scott said. “You can tell from the way Walter designed his life with stability, with a certain amount of foresight. We’d all do crazy stuff, but he never got caught — and made straight A’s.”

“All I ever wanted was to have a college position and also play gigs,” Smith declared. “It’s what I grew up seeing in Houston. I liked the idea of being the person everyone calls to play, but also being connected to the younger generation, learning from them and sharing with them, which enhances your own understanding of the information.”

Smith moved to Berklee after serving three years as associate professor of jazz studies at Indiana University, and nine years at L.A. County High School for the Arts (his students included, among others, Michael Mayo, Connie Han, Chris Fishman, Jeremy Corren, Kalia Vandever and Kyle Poole) and various L.A. area colleges. In one LACHSA class, he related, “I wrote etudes and had them analyze the structure, leading them toward discovery rather than giving them all the information. I’d pick different records, and they’d learn all the songs, memorize a solo, with a test every month.”

At Berklee, Smith teaches “ad hoc with different students during office hours,” but his duties trend heavily to administration and oversight of the 220-student woodwind department, allowing a good overview of Berklee’s evolution since his own undergraduate days. He emphasized the impact of the Global Jazz Institute, headed by Danilo Pérez and Marco Pignataro, and the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice Studies, headed by Terri Lyne Carrington.

“Inclusion is the buzzword everywhere in higher ed, but they’re doing something creative within that space,” Smith said. “The students who go there return with a different vision, and it changes everyone’s makeup. The point is to go out in the world and affect the scene.”

Smith’s first year at Berklee coincided with the onset of COVID-19. Two songs on Return To Casual explicitly reference the deaths of dear friends and mentors. “Shine,” rendered on In Common III as a reflective Smith-Stevens duo, transforms into a bittersweet, anthemic tribute to Jimmy Heath, Ellis Marsalis and Wallace Roney, who “had a huge impact on me, either directly or through the music I loved as a kid.” The album ends with “REVIVE,” a tender elegy named for the organization founded by Meghan Stabile, a Berklee classmate whose suicide last June was triggered by depression exacerbated by the dislocations engendered by COVID.

A week before lockdown, Smith recalled, he was at the Village Vanguard with the Bill Stewart Trio, a regular employer since 2017. “As the week progressed, the audience dwindled to nothing,” Smith said. “Three days after I got back to Boston, they shut down the school. The next week was spring break. When we returned, we’d switched to completely virtual. As department chair, I had to bring all the faculty up to speed on Zoom and how the technology would work — hearing the instrument through this format, getting people microphones, dealing with low latency, and so on. There was some excitement about developing extra skills and working on production and home recording. But the students lost out on social interaction. People returned to their homes, where they couldn’t play their instrument because their parents were working virtually, or their sibling was in whatever virtual school. It was a disaster in many ways.”

Two months after Berklee went virtual, George Floyd was murdered. When school reopened, Smith related, “a lot of Band-Aids were ripped off. A lot of new conversations were happening. Not just the students, but the entire faculty and administrative staff was talking about race. A lot has changed in the course offerings, the people who teach them, and the training that goes into it. Berklee now has an Africana Studies Division, which had been in the works, but during the pandemic it got pushed through, and now they’re doing incredible work. Attention to mental health has been the biggest growth; there’s a robust counseling center, 24 hours a day, with people on call. It’s changed the face of the college.

“It was overwhelming to lose all these people,” Smith said. “Humor and video games are the only way to get through it.” DB

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