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Walter Smith III - Return to Casual (Blue Note)

6 April 2023

Both a brilliant bandleader and a consummate sideperson, saxophonist/composer Walter Smith III has been modestly making a mark in the jazz world for nearly twenty years. His best-known project thus far may be the In Common band he co-chairs with guitarist Matthew Stevens, but when he steps out on his own, he’s just as powerful – as demonstrated by his latest album Return to Casual. The title nods to his 2006 debut Casually Introducing and its 2014 follow-up Still Casual, with which Return shares a band (pianist Taylor Eigsti, drummer Kendrick Scott, bassist Harish Raghavan, and Stevens, plus guest trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire). It’s a fitting title in its way – not because Smith is careless in any way, but because he has the self-confidence in his skills to stay relaxed. Thus the musicians can attack a soaring tune like the ironically titled “Quiet Song” without taking out their aggressions on it, or fill the uplifting “Shine” with energy beyond trampling on its memorable melody. It also allows Smith to display a sense of humor about his work – check out the swirling “Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me” or the frisky opener “Contra,” which uses the gamer’s tester code “up up down down left right left right B A B A start” as its structure. His bandmates match him stroke for stroke, grin for grin, and gasp for gasp. With Return to Casual, Smith has casually made a magnificent album.