By Michael Ullman
With their shifting textures and compositional variety, the relatively short pieces show the ways — in this case mostly gentle and lyrical — five musicians can fruitfully interact.
Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens, In Common III (Whirlwind)
I was drawn to In Common III by the all-star rhythm section, surely three of the most electrifying and fascinating musicians in our music: pianist Kris Davis, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. As for the leaders, listeners may have heard guitarist Matthew Stevens behind Esperanza Spalding, and saxophonist Walter Smith III with Ambrose Akinmusire or Ralph Peterson. Their new disc is part of a series in which even the cover art has been amusing. On the front of In Common, the original group recording, Smith and Stevens placed a photo of the five guys in the band standing beside a wreck of a car in the woods. They are all looking away in different directions. The photo suggests (appropriately) that this is a group of individuals rather than a tight knit ensemble. Smith and Stevens must have liked the effect. In Common II, the designer took that same photo and, with no attempt at realism or even bothering with plausibility, stuck on the out-sized heads of the new rhythm section: pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Nate Smith.
The cover art for the new session is a stylized design that includes the names of the the new rhythm section members. It is made up of 15 relatively short pieces, beginning with the leaders playing a short, genially bouncy piece “Shine.” It’s closely miked and turns into a mini-group improvisation with sax and strings. That is followed by a swinging number appropriately named “Loping.“ Don’t be misled by the song titles: In Common III is far from a casual blowing date designed to show off the players’ chops. With their shifting textures and compositional variety, the tracks show the ways — in this case mostly gentle and lyrical — five musicians can fruitfully interact. Perhaps the title of the tune “Variable” suggests the leaders vision. It opens with a typically gorgeous solo statement by bassist Holland. Then the leaders play a slowmoving melody while the rhythm section roils the waters beneath them. Davis’s entrance comes off as a major event, her scurrying phrases adding a level of tension while Carrington plays freely underneath and with the soloist.
“Lite” begins with what sounds like an electronic buzz and ringing that moves around the sound stage. (You have to listen to this one in stereo.) When Smith enters on tenor, he sounds like someone who has stepped into swarm of wasps. Except these are gentle wasps. It’s over before you know it. There are more typical solos: guitarist Stevens is featured on “Prince July,” and he yields to Davis rather than Holland and Carrington. It must be notes how respectful Davis is in her solo of the shape of the original composition. Davis again opens on “Oliver” supplying quirky patterns over which the sax plays short phrases before they are joined by some weird electronic sounds. Holland enters briefly as if he just peeked in to see what was going on. There’s a gradual crescendo around a blithely unconcerned saxophone.
“After” is different. It begins with sprays of notes, heavily pedaled, by Davis, moving upwards to create a harplike effect. Then she settles down before the saxophone states the country-ish theme. One expects the performance to continue down that relaxed path, but the rhythm section enters with a Latin-ish beat. Suddenly we are not only listening to the beautifully nuanced duet between Davis and Smith, but to an ensemble with shifting priorities. “For Some Time” begins playfully with a staccato Davis solo with Carrington accompanying her on rims and blocks (mostly) behind her. Holland enters deep in his bass just before the theme is stated. “Shutout” opens with the saxophonist making a series of points between long pauses during which are inserted threatening electronic sounds and a few notes by Davis. This isn’t the kind of shutout, I deduce, that one celebrates. The set ends with “Miserere.” The introduction features sax and piano, and then the acoustic guitar joins the hushed ensemble in what turns into a hymnlike piece. Elsewhere bright and amusing, or genially lyrical, In Common III seems here to be entering sacred ground.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.