Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.
I’ve said it before: Walter Smith III is, unquestionably, one of my modern saxophone heroes. His sound, time feel, and unique use of vocabulary set him apart from many of his contemporaries in my ears. One of the things so striking to me is how versatile his language sounds. Granted, this trait is true of all great players, but with WS3, it somehow seems more natural. Development is one of the more backbeat-heavy tunes I’ve heard him play, but his language doesn’t seem to change in order to fit the tune. That’s not to say that other players would need to change their language to fit this style; rather, it seems that WS3’s language sounds more at home in more situations. Granted, this is simply my own ear and my own aesthetic – feel free to disagree with me on this point.
Last year at this time, I posted another solo played by WS3. The feel of that solo was much more free – it was in 5/4 vs. this in 4/4, the rhythm section floated more vs. this strong backbeat – and I wanted to find out how WS3 approached the separate ideas. I thought there was something different in his vocabulary that made him feel so at home in both situations. As it turns out (perhaps unsurprisingly), many of his -isms are the same between the two. It made me realize that a little bit of vocabulary can go a long way, if used properly. The most obvious difference between the two solos is WS3’s use of running eighth notes – here, they float much less, most likely due to the stylistic change. Aside from that, his melodic and phrasing tendencies remain pretty consistent.
WS3 doesn’t rely on outside playing very much, but when he does, he tends to make it pretty obvious – there are moments of side-stepping and working through the circle, but that’s about as far as it goes. Melodically, there’s a lot of history in this solo. Check out mm. 13-15 and 36-38: this is a fairly common swing-era melodic cell that got used by a lot of beboppers as well (in fact, it occurs pretty heavily in the Stan Getz solo I’ll be doing soon). The relative lack of chromatic harmony also recalls much older styling. WS3 uses a lot of diatonic melody – in fact, as I worked through this one, I found it surprisingly easy to transcribe because of the amount of time he spends in G dominant.
The thing that first caught my ear and was confirmed as I transcribed is the amount of thematic playing done here. Again, this is true of every great player, but as many of us know, it’s very easy to slip into blues licks and patterns over static-harmony groove tunes. WS3 keeps this whole solo interesting by playing simply and thematically from phrase to phrase, rather than going for the most impressive licks in his arsenal (we all know that he can burn). He opts for subtlety to pique our interest, then rewards our curiosity with the language that we’ve all come to love.