Walter Smith III’s unique voice sets him apart among this generation of saxophone greats. His compositions all possess the trademark creativity, spontaneity, and thematic development that make him one of the most sought after tenor players on the scene right now. Smith’s new record Still Casual continues and expands on his artistic style and gives his fans some insight to the evolution of his musicality that has been taking place since his last album was recorded. Still Casual is due to be released on September 9th. Joining Smith on his forthcoming LP are Taylor Eigsti (piano), Matt Stevens (guitar), Harish Raghavan (bass), Kendrick Scott (drums), and special guest Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet). We were fortunate enough to speak with Smith about his upcoming project.

 

Exclusive Interview: Walter Smith III's 'Still Casual'

Revive: You’ve played with everyone in this band in different configurations a lot over the last few years. Why did you handpick these guys specifically for this Still Casual?

Walter Smith III: I guess I started with drums. I’ve been playing with Kendrick so long [that] I just kept picturing him filling it in and moving around it when I first started to write it. From there, I started thinking about the people I was currently playing with and how they would add to the texture and what I was going for. I didn’t really go through too many names before I ended up with them (laughs).

I really like the way Taylor comps. He’s really inside of a rhythm section rather than actively soloing behind whoever is playing, and that is very textural. Within that context, Harish is also very adventurous but still always within the rhythm section. It seemed like a really great unit that would work with the music I was working on.

R: Everybody in the band said that the record was a lot of fun to make, that there was a real sense of community and that they enjoyed having some say in arrangements. How much of the overall arc of the album did you have preconceived and how much did they contribute?

WS: I had 100% of it planned out. I think that whenever you’re the one bringing it, whether you admit to it or not, you have an ideal on some level of how you want everything to be. I think the way you make it successful is if you’re open to whatever comes up. If we start playing something and it’s not working, or it’s not going the direction I want, I’m not going to stop and say “You know what, can we just do it this way?” If someone has an idea, I’m not going to not try it.

I think that’s another part of playing with people you really know well; I don’t think anyone thinks twice about saying whatever’s on their mind. There not worried about hurting someone’s feelings or how someone will react. It’s just like, “Dude, I don’t really like what you’re doing there.” “Oh! That’s cool, I won’t do it.” It’s not like you say something and then someone gets depressed and then for the rest of the time they don’t really play.

It would actually be hard for me to say what percentage I went into it with and how much it stayed true to that. A lot of little things are said at a moment where something’s not working. Maybe Taylor will say, “You know what, why don’t we not repeat that” Then it’s like “Yes, that will fix it.” Then we move on, and it is what it is. A lot of that stuff happens. Or even little stuff, like I know Matt made some suggestions like “This chord seems weird here, can we leave it out?” So we would sit there and make it function. I’d say everybody had a 50/50 say versus what I brought in at some point.

R: You mentioned that the thing that sets this album apart from your other albums is the amount preparation and the amount of time you put into writing. You said there was a lot of writing and rewriting.

WS: Yeah. A lot.

R: What inspired that shift in focus?

WS III: To be honest with you – without getting into too many specifics – this was on a label at first and there was a recording date and I had everything ready for that date. Then it got delayed for almost a year. In that time I kept working on that music. I wrote some new stuff, and some of the stuff that I wrote since that delay ended up being on the record, but it just kind of seemed like that thing where everything happens for a reason.

Every time I’ve done a record I’ve always felt rushed. First of all, I’ve only ever done them in one day. I think my first record was done in like five hours. The third one was done in maybe six and a half or something like that; so it’s not a lot of time. I’m usually not one to do a lot of takes, but also the music reflects that; it’s not complicated at all. It’s really something you can read through.

So this one – since I was going to have more time and it was a bigger level of exposure – I felt like I should really spend some time on it. So for another year I worked on the same songs I had written for the first session. I think all of them had about 11 or 12 different versions or revisions that I went through. As I did one, it started to feel better and I started to feel more confident about the music, which is the opposite for me. I usually show up confident about playing over a song. But this time I felt like going in regardless of what I played on it, it was going to be a cool track no matter what.

: Kendrick Scott says in an interview about the new record that one of the things that’s inspiring about you is that you’re always pushing yourself as a musician. How does this album and the music on it reflect that?

R: Kendrick Scott says in an interview about the new record that one of the things that’s inspiring about you is that you’re always pushing yourself as a musician. How does this album and the music on it reflect that?

WS: Yeah, for sure. Even just spending more time studying writing. That’s something that I’ve kind of blown through. So I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s stuff, analyzing it, and all that kind of stuff. Figuring out ways to use those ideas in my own stuff. For sure, trying to push that aspect of my musicianship further.

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R: You mentioned that “Fing Fast” was inspired by a D’Angelo track?

WS: Yeah.

R: That kind of caught me off guard, because I didn’t really hear D’angelo there.

WS: Oh yeah, for sure. One of the big things I always try to do – even if it’s something that I’m playing – I don’t want someone to hear and it reveals its source as an obvious thing. For instance, that influence from the D’Angelo thing… I don’t actually remember specifically what song it was, but it was something I had on shuffle. It was just like (sings bass line in half notes with back beat), it was that kind of thing. It seemed like it would flow because the drums were in half time. Maybe it actually was, but I was picturing it as each one of those half notes being a whole note. Just with that idea is what I sat down with.

R: What other inspirations influence your writing in general, or on this album? I guess, who are you listening to?

WS: A lot of my peers. Logan Richardson, Marcus Strickland, Jimmy Greene, and Ambrose Akinmusire. You know… all the guys like Sean Jones. Everybody that I know that is putting out records. That’s what I’m really listening to. Ben Wendel, really love his records.

R: You said you “nerded out” the most on “Foretold You,” on how it’s based on a specific idea throughout, it’s based on this triad idea. Is that something you’re working on right now?

WS: No. At various points you come back to stuff that you’ve worked on. I guess for me sometimes, when I’m writing, I try to think of simple ideas and see how much I could do with it. That one, it happened to be like, “Ok, today, let’s try triads.”

R: It seems like you’re compositional style is evolving, and this record is marked by really strong melodies. How would you describe this change.

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WS: I think the more I write on piano the better the melodies are. Early on I wrote a lot of stuff on saxophone which tends to be more complicated and less melodic. I’m kind of stuck in my own improvisational or technical stuff, but on piano it’s a lot more open because I can’t play all the stuff I play on saxophone. So it naturally leads to more singable things. So, maybe that’s the answer (laughs).

R: Could you talk about your writing process a little bit?

WS: Every day I usually have a writing session and a practice session. During the writing session, I have music that I’ve been working on for years, and some of it is like three or four measures and I;m always trying to extend it. For this record I did a lot of work on . When I studied with Terence Blanchard, when I studied with him at the Thelonious Monk institute, he has this process that he go from his teacher and it’s called “If I Could I Would.” It’s basically like you’re working around all these different ideas. He wrote a song with that title – it’s on one of his records. Anyways, it’s a way of extending your ideas and having the whole piece be a variation of whatever the initial idea that you come up with is. It’s a lot of writing and rewriting and reworking small bits of melodies, and trying to put it together to create a piece that really just came from a few notes or a few rhythms.

R: Like a unified kind of thing.

WS: Absolutely.

R: What’s the significance of that title?

WS: Well, if you hear him explain it. That’s the initial title, then he changes around the words in the sentence and you get completely different meanings. Like, “I could if I would,” or, adding puntuation. “If I could, would I?” That kind of stuff. Obviously if you look at it that way, you can see how it would transfer over musically. Taking the same idea and making it something totally different, but still connected.

R: I noticed that the timbres are pretty different on this album. On Casually Introducing you had vocals, Rhodes, and some electronic instruments. I noticed basically zero of that on this record.

WS: Yeah.

R: Was that a conscious decision?

WS: Well, there’s Rhodes on this one. I think it’s been like eight years ago when Casually Introducing was recorded, so those things aren’t as important to me. Even the fact that Rhodes is on that one, even though it’s on this one, it’s not even like a featured part of this track. It’s not like there’s all of a sudden Rhodes, or that the song is based around that sound. Maybe it’s just a part of getting older and not really wanting everything to be so different, and having more of a unified sound throughout that kind of blends together.

 Scroll down below to preview “Kaleidoscope,” a track from Walter Smith’s forthcoming album ‘Still Casual.’ Smith’s newest LP is due to be released on September 9th. Purchase your copy of ‘Still Casual’ via iTunes

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