Interplay and Individual Improvisations Shine Via Walter Smith III & Company On ‘In Common III’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The rotating quintet, In Common, was first established by tenor saxophonist, leader, sideman, and producer Walter Smith III, together with fellow leader and in-demand sideman guitarist Matthew Stevens in 2018. Now is its third incarnation, In Common III, ups the ante from the previous two editions, by collaborating with living bass legend, NEA Jazz Master Dave Holland, fellow NEA Jazz Master and three-time Grammy Award-winning drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and acclaimed pianist Kris Davis. This mixed-gender unit comprises essentially three generations of players. The first unit debuted with vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Marcus Gilmore. This unit, with Kendrick Scott replacing Gilmore on drums, played Newport in 2019 to an enthusiastic response.

Many jazz enthusiasts will know that Stevens also plays in Carrington’s Grammy-nominated Social Science project and that Carrington was a key player in Davis’ 2019 Diatom Ribbons, which was voted the Number One Album of that year in the NPR Jazz Critics poll. Needless today, every jazz musician would jump at the chance to work with Holland. Rather remarkably, this is the first time with Holland for all of them in the studio, including Carrington.

In keeping with the previous albums, this one begins with a tenor/guitar duet on the Smith composition, “Shine,” written in tribute to Jimmy Heath, McCoy Tyner, Wallace Roney, Ellis Marsalis, and Chick Corea (all of whom passed in 2020-21). Yet, this edition departs from the previous in that includes four spontaneously composed trio pieces, without the conventional rhythm tandem.  These are: “Oliver,” “Lite,” “Shutout,” and “Dust” – all recorded with Smith III, Stevens, and Davis in the same room and containing some of the album’s most inspired playing. 

The angular, syncopated “Oliver” gets frenzied and dense as it builds with Stevens seemingly fiddling with every possible effect he can find on his pedalboard, while the brief, edgy “Lite” begins with haunting feedback from Stevens before Smith III colors in the space with sustained lower register notes and Davis sprinkles in a few. “Shutout” is a ruminating piece that plays in a floating, suspended way as if trying to find one through a twisting cave guided by the faintest of light. The five minute “Dust” is the longest of the four, beginning with Smith III’s searching, slowly paced intro that quickly picks up momentum with Davis’ black keynotes and Stevens’ fluttering guitar strumming before receding into spacey, single notes from each player, as if posing precise questions to each other that receive anything but precise answers. 

Sequencing interweaves the trio and quintet presentations. The first quintet piece is the brimming Stevens’ piece “Loping” marked by his guitar lines and Carrington’s great kit work, especially on cymbals. Stevens also contributes “Hornets,” “Orange Crush,” “Reds,” and “Prince July” as well as the piano guitar-tenor “Miserere,” a hymn-like piece that first appeared on his stellar acoustic solo 2021 Pittsburgh.  Smith III penned “After,” “For Some Time,” “Variable,” and “Familiar” in addition to “Shine.” Note that “Loping,” “Orange Crush,” and “For Some Time” has been issued as singles.

“Hornets” swings with Smith III carrying the melody bolstered by strong solos from Stevens and Davis and a brief drum-bass conversation. Most of the quintet pieces though are focused on group interplay, establishing riffs and then expanding and stretching them in several directions as on “Orange Crush” and “After.” The latter begins with Davis’ glistening piano beckoning someone else to pick up the melody. Smith III gracefully takes the baton and blows his signature bluesy phrases. Carrington kicks in with her beats and Holland caps off a delectable five minutes of ensemble work. “For Some Time” features perky dialogue between Davis and Carrington while the funky “Reds” and the slower moving “Variable” each give Holland his due amidst the convivial interplay. Stevens takes the helm on his “Prince July” while Smith III leads his melodic “Familiar,” leaving room for Holland’s inventive and lengthiest solo statement and gorgeous accompaniment from Davis in the latter portion. This beautifully sequenced album flows smoothly from one piece to the another, all seemingly pointing to the sublime ballad closer, Stevens’ trio rendering of “Miserere.”

Given the caliber and stature of these five musicians, it is not at all surprising that this is the best of the three In Common offerings to date, a sterling example of interplay and individual improvisations.

As a parting note, interestingly, the artwork on the CD is consistent across all three of them and this one displays the photos for all three versions of the band. Close observers may chuckle a bit to see the faces of Terri Lyne Carrington and Kris Davis plastered atop the original bodies of Gilmore and Ross respectively.

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