Playin’ Around With Playbook: Walter Smith III

Hey everyone! This week on Playin’ Around With Playbook, Sammy and I spoke with saxophonist and educator Walter Smith III. 

“The New York Times describes tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III’s work as “fabulous.” 2022 brings Smith to new heights with his most compelling and reflective album to date. In Common III is set for release the Spring of 2022 featuring some of the most important and talked about artists on the scene including Matt Stevens, Kris Davis, Dave Holland and Terri Lyne Carrington.

Walter is currently leading ensembles in several configurations for performances from trio (TWIO), quartet, or quintet (IN COMMON).. Walter is also a Vandoren Artist, appearing in workshops, and guest residencies.”

Below is a transcription of our conversation on March 3rd, 2022. Click here to view the full interview. Click here to listen to the interview on Spotify.


TRISTA FORD: What have you been listening to lately?

WALTER SMITH III: A lot of Immanuel’s most recent record, Melissa Aldana’s most recent record. Also, Ethan Iverson. Yeah, all of those have kind of been on the docket. There’s also this incredible album by Logan Richardson called Ethos that he di about maybe 10 years ago. 

SAMMY MILLER: How does it feel for you going from the youngest guy in the scene and a community to no longer being the youngest in the room? 

WS: Now, young musicians are always the brightest thinkers, in any kind of group. There’s something to be said for experience. You grow and you kind of refine things over time, but just that whole energy of being young, and really believing in what you’re doing, without any real reason to have. There’s a certain thing there. I’ve been waiting to not be the young person so I can see what everybody else is doing and really learn from that and try to grow within that.

TF: Was there a particular educator that inspired you to pursue music as a career?

WS: My father was an educator, he was an elementary school teacher, and that’s where I started saxophone in second grade, at his school, and then also my first saxophone teacher. They made a movie about him later, but he was also from Houston and he led the Cashmere High School stage band. After hi, it was my last teacher, before I got to college, who was really inspirational to me, David Casera, who was kind of what made me ultimately decide to pursue music and model this whole idea of being an educator after what he was doing. He was the guy that played everywhere in Houston and had all the gigs. But he also was teaching adjunct at all the universities and also at our performing arts high school. That just always seemed so cool to me, like I’d go to his house for lessons and there would be leftover Chinese food because he got it at like three in the morning. He was always busy. And that felt like how it was supposed to be. 

SM: how do you know what to say no to with your work-life balance and education versus performance?

WS: It boils down to the people that you value and the time that you spend with them. So right now, there are a couple of bands that I’m like, currently, engaged with for the next six months. Those bands, I would always say yes to, including people that I spent a lot of time playing with. Somebody like Ambrose, for instance, this fall. I had a week at the vanguard with Eric Carlin. And then Tom Harrell was the following week, but something happened where he wasn’t going to be able to do it. So Ambrose got called to fill in for that week. So it kind of came up last second, which was something that I hadn’t planned for, being in New York for two back-to-back weeks. It was my daughter’s birthday during that second week, so I was like okay, I have to say yes to him. He’s somebody that I would, no matter what it is, I’m gonna make it work. But that’s not for everybody. So it’s, it’s basically you know, the people you really feel passionate about playing with, and new opportunities that seem interesting that will challenge you differently. 

TF: What are the most important things that you have wanted your students to walk away with at Berkelee?

WS: I don’t actually teach anything. It’s purely administrative. So I’ve kind of transcended teaching in a way. But I do work with a lot of students. I always want everybody to be able to teach themselves. I want to present things in a way that does not center on my personal preference, you know, I hear someone play over something or do something that is not at all how I would approach it. I don’t want to be someone that makes them think twice about that. I want to make sure they understand conceptually what we’re talking about. And then they’re free to do with it what they want.

SM: Do you use any digital stuff? Do you find it helpful, to move to the virtual world? 

WS: I learned a lot over the last few years as most of us did, but presenting workshops that don’t necessarily involve live playing is really effective through zoom. I was able to put things together where you just pre-record all the examples and you have it all there, and you have everything organized in a way, where you can share all the details. I think in that way, it’s a lot more efficient. You can get to all the information that you kind of want to discuss and you have everything ready to go. Sometimes in a class, one of the biggest challenges is pacing. I do feel like in the virtual space, people are not as willing to speak up or ask questions, so you can kind of get through things quicker. But I do feel like you lose a little bit of the interactive experience, at least for me, there’s always one person that is ready to kind of ask questions, but it’s not the same as being in a room with people where you can look at someone and make them kind of engage with you in that way. It is very valuable. It has helped everybody reach a lot more people, especially during this time when we had to be on it but I think ultimately, I’m kind of still old school. I still write music with pen and paper and then eventually put it in Finale. So I always start with the old school thing. 

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