Walter Smith III is one to watch – a US saxophonist whose oblique lines come with an airy tone and crystal-clear intent. He opened this first night of a 15-date UK tour a cappella, his brief, sideways-glancing run both cue for his band and scene-setting statement. Confident, accessible and full of intrigue, it launched two sets of state-of-the-art modern jazz in which devious lines negotiated dense thickets of harmony. There was a constant chatter of light-touch rhythm and clearly marked signposts showed the way.
The evening started at a steady lope, the warm saxophone melody of “Apollo” sitting comfortably over the rich and detailed voicings of Matthew Stevens’ guitar and the polyrhythmic ripple of Jamire Williams’ drums. Bassist Michael Janisch was more answering counterpoint than firm foundation until Stevens’ solo began with an obtuse, nagging and extremely tense pedal. The band relaxed briefly for the bridge, but soon Smith was up and running, bending the most wayward line to fall on a particularly juicy note.
Both sets were dominated by original material that varied in pace if not intensity. “Him or Me” had offbeat lines and sax flurries – Michael Janisch’s bass solo an early highlight; “Goodnight Now” edged towards a ballad; and the first-set finale, “Contrafact”, was a wickedly fast, compound-timed be-bop theme played in unison. In the second set, the ambiguous “Slow/Fast” featured tricky sax echoed by guitar, with only a fractional delay.
In lesser hands, such complexity leads to clutter, but Smith and his band balance their realignments of harmony and rhythm with simple opening themes or a sudden resolving cadence. And they sound great as a band. Smith’s distinctive light tone has a well-rounded centre that gives his restless search for new melodies focus and bite – even in the most demanding harmonic terrain. Stevens’ chording is dense, but his sound is equally personal, warm at the centre, but resonant and sometimes harsh at the edge.
Perhaps most impressive, drummer Williams’ crisp round-the-kit rolls and cymbal splashes pulsate with possibilities and let the music breathe. The last word, though, was from leader Smith, a beautiful unaccompanied interpretation of Thelonius Monk’s ballad “Ask Me Now”.