Walter Smith III Quintet
Better than…a set by Thurston Howell III
Houston-born saxophonist Walter Smith III is a busy man. His first-call tenor frequently shares the stage with some of the best young musicians out there, finding a particular affinity with trumpet players, like Terence Blanchard, Sean Jones, Christian Scott, and Ambrose Akinmusire. But for the first set of his second night at Little Tokyo's Blue Whale on Saturday, Smith chose to be the only horn on stage, highlighting his talents as a composer, bandleader and modest MC.
After a lengthy delay, the quintet picked up their instruments before a standing-room only crowd. The rest of the band – pianist Josh Nelson, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Kendrick Scott – stood back as Smith opened with a wandering solo flight.
They slowly joined him, with Raghavan busily working alongside Scott's patient build. Koonse, no stranger to the LA jazz scene, took a brisk solo highlighting his clean tone. He spent the entire night functioning more as a second horn than as a member of the rhythm section, rarely playing more than two notes at a time throughout the set.
A heavier original entitled “Apollo” featured Scott's deliberately clattering drum set, driving both Koonse and Smith into frantic solos before taking his own extended, tom-tom-heavy solo. Without pause, the band launched into another upbeat original with Nelson drawing whoops of approval following his rapid-fire solo. Smith then seamlessly segued into the next song with a breathy take on Thelonious Monk's “Ask Me Now.” Koonse and Nelson took fluttering solos over Scott's delicate brushwork before Smith drew the song to a close, swirling around one of Monk's more sensitive melodic lines.
The band closed the set with a furious sax/guitar melody that found Smith at his most pugilistic, battling for dominance over Scott's well-timed explosions. It also featured Raghavan's only solo for the set, a rumbling and fitful jaunt that highlighted his consummate technique.
It was reassuring to see a full-house in a jazz club in Los Angeles. Those are hard to come by these days. (Both crowds and clubs, actually!) On top of that, the audience was respectful. Smith, playing without a microphone, was able to flow cleanly over his amplified bandmates, further emphasizing his controlled toned and succinctly stating his case for why he is such an in-demand performer.
Personal Bias: If I'm going to sit on a small leather cube for more than twenty minutes, you'd better be good.
The Crowd: Cats, man.
Random Notebook Dump: I'm pretty sure the guy sitting next to me had at least half a pound of marijuana in his jacket.