In Common is an album co-led by tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, guitarist Matthew Stevens, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Marcus Gilmore. It’s an album with a clean and pure quality to it. It’s a straight-ahead jazz album without all the conventions. It’s definitely contemporary, but it doesn’t exactly swing. These songs aren’t trying to rock the boat, they are indeed the motion of the ocean. For a co-led quintet album, such evenhandedness is understandable, which makes In Common such a treat to be so simply satisfying.
There is a clarity and the directness to these songs. I noticed it when I first heard “YINZ”, a song I once knew long ago in a much more embellished form as “Cicada” from Stevens’ 2010 EP Meet Matt Stevens, or in their easy but pointed take on the Geri Allen composition, “Unconditional Love”; these are not the most expected covers. This is no clearer than in the lead single, “ACE”, which just glides right along on its three beats, it’s so breezy and balanced among all players, it’s easy to see why it was the lead single. In general, this is a gentle roll of an album, but it’s got bite. The most bombastic the album gets is the tune “Baron”, which is a considerable high energy tune but nothing overwhelming.
In the liner notes for the album, Walter Smith III stated that “Part of the basis for the project was to write relatively simple music… The idea of simplicity downplayed individual ownership which was liberating.” This simplicity laid the path for not only this ecumenical play but also the balanced sound. It’s easier for everyone to fulfill their role if the roles aren’t hard to see, which was inherent in the composition. Joel Ross’ vibraphone provides texture in the same way that water erodes and polishes stones in a riverbed. Harish Raghavan’s bass steers like a rudder. Marcus Gilmore isn’t being too flashy on the drums, only getting one show stopping solo here– the escalating “13th Floor”. Matthew Stevens alternates between giving the greatest backing on the guitar and taking the lead without running out too far ahead seemingly from moment to moment. Walter Smith III ties all of this together on the saxophone, providing sweetness that makes this album sing.
In Common is a pleasant album (but not so pleasant that it’s boring, I mean… I am writing about it right now, which says something). It won’t drive you up the walls. It won’t invoke hooting and hollering. What it will do is through this quintet’s sense of center is inspire you to find your own.
In Common, the new album from Walter Smith, Matthew Stevens, Joel Ross, Harish Raghavan, and Marcus Gilmore, is out now on Whirlwind Recordings.
Walter Smith III – tenor saxophone
Matthew Stevens – guitar
Joel Ross – vibraphone
Harish Raghavan – double bass
Marcus Gilmore – drums
Recorded at the Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, NY December, 2017
Engineered by Paul Antonell
Assistant Engineer – Heather Tobias
Mixing Engineer – Kyle Hoffmann
Produced by Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens
Executive Producer – Michael Janisch
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.