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Walter Smith III sounds right at home on 'return to casual'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III comes from Houston. He traveled north to get his schooling and settled in New York, where he was soon recording under his own name, starting in 2005, and with such contemporaries as drummer Eric Harland and trumpeters Christian Scott and Ambrose Akinmusire. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Smith's new album is bringing him well-deserved attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER SMITH III'S "RIVER STYX")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Walter Smith III on "River Styx" from his album "Return To Casual," his first for the Blue Note label. Smith sets a standard for modern saxophone-playing in a direct way, influencing young players as chair of the woodwind department at Boston's Berklee School of Music. He's a good role model. With Smith, everything's in balance. His pliable, expressive tone is not too heavy or too light. Rhythmically, he can ride a beat or resist it. Smith exploits tension between simple and complex phrases, smooth and rough textures and the composed and the improvised.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER SMITH III'S "QUIET SONG")

WHITEHEAD: Walter Smith also writes some slinky tunes. That one's called "Quiet Song." Smith's tune "Contra" shows how the rhythms of contemporary technology seep into the music. The hectic melody mimics the front-and-back and side-to-side moves of a video gamer's hands at the controller. Smith replays rhythms he played as a gamer growing up in the '80s and '90s. Now he's looking back.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER SMITH III'S "CONTRA")

WHITEHEAD: Walter Smith may also balance energetic tunes with a laid-back mode common to a few recent Blue Note records. In that vein, there's a pop cover, singer Kate Bush's 1985 deep track "Mother Stands For Comfort." Smith's version dwells on the melody's prayer-like repetitions. His frequent collaborator Matt Stevens is on guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER SMITH III'S "MOTHER STANDS FOR COMFORT")

WHITEHEAD: To stoke the fire a bit and add another color, Walter Smith's friend sometime boss and Blue Note labelmate Ambrose Akinmusire plays trumpet on a couple of tracks. Their trades enliven the jam "Amelia Earhart Ghosted Me," but the suspenseful piano chords in the background really sell it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER SMITH III'S "AMELIA EARHART GHOSTED ME")

WHITEHEAD: Throughout the album "Return To Casual," Matt Stevens' guitar and Taylor Eigsti's piano deftly reinforce each other and never collide. All the players go back a ways with the leader. The bassist is Harish Raghavan. The drummer is Kendrick Scott, who has his own new trio album on Blue Note with Walter Smith III on tenor. The label is making the saxophonist feel right at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALTER SMITH III'S "LAMPLIGHT")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Return To Casual," the new album by tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III. Coming up, we remember influential book and magazine editor Michael Denneny, who died last week at age 80. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNTAX SONG, "PRIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.