By Michael Ullman
With their shifting textures and compositional variety, the relatively short pieces show how – in this case mostly soft and lyrical – five musicians can fruitfully interact.
Walter Smith III and Matthew Stevens, In Common III (Whirlwind)
I was attracted by 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. On the front end, listeners may have heard guitarist Matthew Stevens behind Esperanza Spalding, and saxophonist Walter Smith III with Ambrose Akinmusire or Ralph Peterson. Their new record is part of a series in which even the cover has been fun. On the front of In common, the band’s original recording, Smith and Stevens placed a photo of the five guys in the band standing next to a car wreck in the woods. They all look in different directions. The photo suggests (correctly) that it is a group of individuals rather than a tight-knit whole. Smith and Stevens must have liked the effect. In common II, the designer took this same photo and, without any attempt at realism or even concern for plausibility, pasted on the oversized heads of the new rhythm section: pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Nate Smith.
The new session’s cover art is a stylized design that includes the names of the new rhythm section members. It is made up of 15 relatively short pieces, starting with the leaders playing a short and brilliantly bouncy piece “Shine.” It is tightly micro and turns into a mini-group improvisation with sax and strings. This is followed by a swinging number aptly named “Loping.“ Don’t be fooled by the song titles: In Common III is far from a casual get-together designed to show off players’ talents. With their shifting textures and compositional variety, the tracks show how – in this case mostly soft and lyrical – five musicians can fruitfully interact. Perhaps the title of the song “Variable” suggests the vision of the leaders. It opens with a typically gorgeous solo statement from bassist Holland. Then the leaders play a slow melody as the rhythm section stirs the waters below them. Davis’ entrance comes as a major event, his hasty phrases adding a level of tension as Carrington plays freely below and with the soloist.
“Lite” begins with what sounds like an electronic buzz and ringing that moves across the soundstage. (You have to listen to this one in stereo.) When Smith comes in on tenor, he sounds like someone who walked into a swarm of wasps. Except they are sweet 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 should be noted how Davis respects the form of the original composition in his solo. Davis opens again on “Oliver” providing quirky patterns over which the saxophone plays short phrases before they are joined by eerie electronic sounds. Holland enters briefly as if he had just taken a look to see what was going on. Progressive crescendo around a cheerfully carefree saxophone.
“After” is different. It begins with heavily pedaled sheaves of notes by Davis, moving upwards to create a harp effect. Then she settles down before the saxophone sets out the country theme. The performance is expected to continue on this relaxed track, but the rhythm section enters with a Latin beat. Suddenly, we’re not just listening to the beautifully nuanced duet between Davis and Smith, but an ensemble with shifting priorities. “For Some Time” begins playfully with a staccato solo from Davis with Carrington accompanying her on rims and blocks (mostly) behind her. Holland goes deep into his bass just before the theme is stated. “Shutout” opens with the saxophonist making a series of dots between long pauses during which menacing electronic sounds and a few notes from Davis are inserted. It’s not the kind of shutout, I take it, we celebrate. The set ends with “Miserere.” The intro includes saxophone and piano, then acoustic guitar joins the hushed ensemble in what turns into an anthem. Elsewhere brilliant and amusing, or brilliantly lyrical, In Common III seems to be entering sacred ground here.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, from where he earned a doctorate in English. 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, stereophilic, boston phoenix, boston globe, and other places. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling and others have appeared in academic journals. For more than 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also criticizes classical music. At Tufts University, he primarily teaches Modernist Writers in the English Department and Jazz and Blues History in the Music Department. He plays the piano badly.