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When Michael Janisch moved to the UK from his native USA he brought with him not just his own formidable skills as a bass player, but an address book containing virtually every rising star on the New York jazz scene. Over the past few years he’s used these contacts to put together some formidable Anglo-American groups, but with the Walter Smith III Quartet he’s set the creative bar to its highest yet.
In fact this is virtually a working New York band, led by perhaps the most celebrated, talked-about saxophonist of his generation. With a rich full-bodied tone on his instrument, and an approach that blends tradition and modernity like few contemporary artists, he has become first call tenorist for such major figures as Terence Blanchard, Jason Moran, and his fellow rising star, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. In fact he was here at Sage Gateshead back in March as part of Akinmusire’s quintet, and anybody who heard him then will welcome this opportunity to catch him again, fronting his own band and playing compositions from his three acclaimed albums as leader.
Travelling with him from the States are Canadian-born guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Jamire Williams. Stevens settled in New York in 2004 after graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music (where he won the Guitar Department’s highest honour, the Jimi Hendrix Award), and has since worked with a host of luminaries including Dr Lonnie Smith, Jacky Terrasson, and the jazz world’s latest superstar Esperanza Spalding. Jamire Williams, originally from Houston, Texas, is equally in demand, playing gigs with such diverse figures as Robert Glasper, Pharoah Sanders and Corinne Bailey Rae, as well as leading his own quintet Erimaj – whose music has been described in the New York Times as “properly new, part of something larger, and still unnamed”.
Finally, the man who’s brought this tremendous band to the UK, Michael Janisch, whose formidable musicianship has earned him acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. His warm, powerful bass playing draws deep from the well of past masters, yet possesses a dynamic grasp and committed focus on contemporary trends in rhythm, harmony and groove. There’s no question that his virtuosity and openness make him an equal partner with his New York colleagues.
The magazine Jazz Times has described the development of Walter Smith’s ideas as “a journey that never ceases in its momentum”. In the group he brings to Sage Gateshead he’s found three like minded musicians who will match him every step on the way.