Sax Star Walter Smith III on Lessons from Roy Haynes and More

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If you don’t yet know about sax monster  Walter Smith III, that needs to change – right now. He’s played with the likes of Terence Blanchard, Eric Harland, Roy Haynes, Eric Reed, Mulgrew Miller, Joe Lovano, Walter Beasley, Terri Lynne Carrington and Christian McBride, to name just a few. He’s recorded as a leader as well, with one of his albums (“III”) making the iTunes top 10 in its category.

Adeptly striding the line between the tradition and innovation, Walter is on fire right now with a fresh and inspiring album, Still Casual.

The Interview

Doron Orenstein: What was it that inspired you to make music your life?

Walter Smith III: My father was a saxophonist (in New Orleans) and an elementary band director (in Houston) so I got a super early start playing saxophone at age 5. Over the years, music became my favorite thing to do, and all of my best friends were also involved with music which made it really fun as well.

When it came time to think about college, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than play and teach music.

DO: While you have your own distinct approach to jazz, your playing is very rooted in the tradition of straight-ahead jazz. What is it that you did that allowed you to develop deep roots in the jazz tradition?

WS: All of my favorite musicians throughout history have roots in the players that came before them, and that has always been something that’s been important for me to study and internalize. My approach to learning the history has involved mostly listening and paying attention to the details of how different players have different ways of navigating the same harmonic and rhythmic patterns. Also learning a lot of tunes has helped me to gain perspective on playing through lots of forms and versions of changes.

DO: Is there anything specific that you’ve done that’s helped you develop your own style, or has that just come naturally?

WS: The idea of developing a style to me just involves being honest about your own personal preferences and choices relating to music. I may like Don Byas, Kidd Jordan, and Coleman Hawkins for a different reason than the next guy. Where as one person may like their sound and harmonic approach, I may avoid those things altogether in my own playing, while borrowing from their rhythmic concepts instead. We all take different aspects of people’s playing and those specific combinations and choices that we make end up leading to what makes us sound the way we do.

DO: What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

WS: So far, the highlight of my career is that actually I have one! lol. I know so many saxophone players that are so much better than me and I feel very fortunate to be able to work as much with as I do with as many great musicians as I do. I know it sounds like a joke, but I sincerely mean that.

DO: What do you find yourself practicing the most these days?

WS: These days, I find that I’m very interested in working on my composition skills. I analyze a lot of compositions for different reasons and try to re-create elements of them similar to how I used to do when I was learning to improvise. I’m a novice at composition so it’s really exciting to me when I make progress at it and write things that I enjoy playing and listening to.

DO: What would you say is the skill or attribute that’s helped you the most as a musician?

WS: I think the thing that has helped me the most has been my ability to interpret music. The majority of what I’ve done professionally has been work as a side man, and that is all about bringing life into someone’s music while still maintaining your own personality.

DO: What’s the single best, or at least one of the best pieces of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?

WS: When I played in Roy Haynes’s Fountain of Youth band, he stressed to me the importance of learning the melody (including lyrcs) of the song. He would be specific to the nth degree about where to play and not to play. Every 8th note and quarter note had a serious significance to him. Since that time, I’ve made a point of taking every band leader’s directions as literally as possible and I try to really, really respect their vision for how their music should be played.

DO: What’s the next musical frontier for Walter Smith III?

WS: I wrote a lot of music for this record (Still Casual) that we didn’t use that I’d like to work on with the band towards a follow up record. Also I’m working towards recording a trio album, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I’m not sure which one I’ll pursue first, but they are both on my radar.

DO: For those new to your music, which recording would you suggest they pick up?

WS: The recording I’m most proud of start to finish is the latest album, Still Casual. However, if you are looking to go back a few years, I have certain songs from my previous releases that are my favorites. Those are “Kate Song” from “Casually Introducing Walter Smith III”, “Stablemates” from “Live in Paris”, and “Capital Wasteland” from “III”.

As for sideman work, my favorite tracks would be from Terence Blanchard’s “Choices” (specifically on a Derrick Hodge composition titled “Winding Roads”), Ambrose Akinmusire’s “As the Heart Emerges Glistening/the Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint”, and Eric Harland’s new album “Vipassana”.

DO: What’s your saxophone equipment setup?

WS: I’m really lucky to work with some of the best companies in the business. For reeds I use D’Addario Woodwinds (formerly Rico) and I play Jazz Select 3 Medium filed. For my mouthpiece,I use a Fred Lebayle LRIII 9* mouthpiece. For my saxophone, it’s a selmer super balanced action #42,679.

To learn more about Walter and get your hands on his new album, head over to https://www.waltersmith3.com.