Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Four Vast, Unhurried, Profoundly Relevant Minimalist Symphonies From Wadada Leo Smith

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith‘s music exists in a universe of due process for important ideas. In the past couple of decades, he’s focused on vast expanses: Great Lakes, decades of history and eternal philosophical questions. He explores them as if time stands still: everything is considered, judiciously, with plenty of room for individual contributions from a cast of like-minded improvisers. One of his most epic recent projects – his music may be on the slow side, but he works very fast – is the box set of his four Chicago Symphonies, They’re major works in a career full of them. He’s named them for precious metals and stones: in order, Gold. Diamond, Pearl and Sapphire (click each title for Spotify streams).

Smith was one of the prime movers of the AACM movement in the 60s, and he salutes many of the important figures from that era here throughout the first three symphonies. The fourth, dedicated to Presidents Lincoln and Obama, is the most upbeat and invites some controversy (full disclosure: this blog’s owner voted for Obama twice and is now considering how serious a mistake that might have been).

Smith cites Don Cherry’s landmark 1966 Symphony For Improvisers as a precursor. Each symphony features his Great Lakes Quartet: the first three including Henry Threadgill on alto sax and flutes alongside bassist John Lindberg and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Jonathon Haffner takes over the sax chair on alto and soprano on the final symphony. All of this is profound, unhurried, conversational music.

Although each symphony is a stand-alone work, the four share many consistent tropes. Smith and Threadgill frequently exchange resonant, tectonic sheets of sound rather than riff battles. Lindberg’s bass work is exquisite: for those who love low-register sonics. this melodic feast lasts for literally hours, through sepulchral, shivery cello-like lines, insistent, rhythmic hooks and variations, to looming chords. The muted mystery in the second movement of Symphony No. 2 and stark oldtime gospel allusions in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 3 are among the many, many highlights here.

Haffner is a good choice of foil for Smith throughout Symphony No. 4. As the Obama campaign becomes an unstoppable machine, his energetic flurries are the closest thing to straight-ahead postbop soloing here, and seem to drive Smith to some of his most high-voltage work in recent memory.

Likewise, DeJohnette’s sparkle, flash, mist and frequent rumble here are as purposeful as his steady forward drive is distinctive. There’s nobody who tunes his kit quite like he does, resulting in both an extra layer of melody, as well as colorful evocations of Asian temple mystery in Symphony No. 1 and a frequent devious employment of hardware and rattles, as if to say, “Let’s not get too full of ourselves.”

Threadgill seems to be in a particularly good mood here on alto sax, his gentle, often tender lines that once in awhile veering completely off course into surreal microtones or flickers of other extended technique. His flute is generally limited to wafting long-tone phrases.

For Smith, this is one of his most dynamic releases in recent years, and there are a handful of irresistibly funny quotes (one which he loops over and over) and a couple of unexpected wack-a-mole moments with Threadgill. Whether soberly constructing a valley of kings with immutable boulders of sound, alluding to or full-on embracing the deep blues which remains at the root of his entire career, or firing off rambunctiously optimistic flurries as he does repeatedly in Symphony No. 4, he’s at the top of his game. It’s astonishing that he’s now in his eighties and if anything, more vital than ever.

Whether creating Twin Peaks blues in the opening movement of Symphony No. 2, expanding on what seems to be a cynical O’Jays reference in the second movement of Symphony No. 1 or the dichotomy between Smith’s variations on a popular, celebratory theme and Lindberg’s obsidian chordal solo in the fourth movement of Symphony No, 3, this is a classic example of what four hall of famers can conjure when left to their own devices. Or enough for a close listener to come up with two pages of notes in ten-point type. Rather than making it an all-night listening party, you will enjoy these best at a leisurely pace across a few evenings.

January 26, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare 1986 Wadada Leo Smith Show Surfaces

Here’s a really cool one from the vaults: a 1986 duo performance at Brandeis University featuring trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith – an early AACM member – and his drummer friend Ed Blackwell, the longtime Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman sideman. Recorded by the college radio station and just now seeing the light of day almost 25 years later, it’s a brisk, entertaining and warmly melodic romp, quite a change from the intricately, often massively orchestrated stuff Smith has mined lately. Blackwell’s performance here, as Smith has taken care to emphasize, is especially impressive because although his playing is completely improvised, it’s intricately thought out, a series of hypnotic riffs that he runs over and over again for a trance-inducing vibe. Either Blackwell had them up his sleeve all along – several with tinges of hip-hop; a martial New Orleans step, and a couple that sound like loops – or he conjured them up on the spot, which as Smith avers is the more likely story. Either way, it makes this new album, titled The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer, a goldmine for rappers on the prowl for catchy samples.

It’s essentially a ten-part suite. Not all of the tracks segue into each other, but many of them do. Smith goes for melody most of the time, a central four-note hook that twists and bends and then comes back toward the end when least expected. His tone is bright, clear, and ebullient except for the couple of occasions when he goes off-mic, with a mute, as Blackwell takes centerstage. It’s fascinating to hear how Blackwell pulls Smith into a series of staccato, insistent, minimalist phrases from time to time: he’s nothing if not a good influence. There are a couple of vocal numbers here too, the of them first building vivid, watery ambience as Smith plinks on a mbira (west African thumb piano) and Blackwell flails on the metal on his kit. The second is something of a meek-shall-inherit-the-earth theme with Rasta overtones (which are present but muted; one brief, lyrical passage here is titled Sellassie-I). Occasionally Blackwell will move out from the center, signaling a small handful of Smith excursions, but those are few and far between. More often, it’s Smith judiciously ornamenting over a trance-inducing groove or five. One cut here features Smith playing pensively expansive flute, contrasting with Blackwell’s most traditional, and most aggressive work here. They close with a number that juxtaposes balmy atmosphere with slinky funk, then the instruments switch roles; the final cut is almost a fugue, blithe trumpet glissandos alternated with those brief, percussive, staccato accents again, in a tribute to Albert Ayler. It’s a lot of fun, especially as it showcases a side that neither musician has ever been particularly known for.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: TriBeCaStan – Strange Cousin

An alternate title for this cd could be Around the World with 180 Instruments. This is definitely a strange album, also a very clever, entertaining and playful one, ostensibly showcasing the music of the tiny and fascinating nation of TriBeCaStan, landlocked by the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chinatown, SoHo and the Financial District. In one sense, this seems to be a vehicle for bandleaders John Kruth and Jeff Greene to air out what seems to be a museum’s worth of exotic and unusual instruments. Bolstered by a like-minded cast of adventurers including oud master Brahim Fribgane, gypsy jazz pioneer Matt Darriau and seashell virtuoso Steve Turre, they have a boisterously good-natured out-of-the-box sensibility much in the same vein as sprawling avant-gypsy/klezmer/reggae improvisers Hazmat Modine.

The first cut is Mopti, a Don Cherry tune redone as rustic, hundred-year-old one-chord oldtime blues. Tonko the Zookeeper maintains the rustic blues feel, featuring Kruth on the Moldavian kaval (recorder) and Greene on the dutar (a beautifully resonant Uzbek lute). The suite continues with Yusef’s Motif, a flute composition, Greene this time on the koncovka, a wooden tube of Slovakian origin used here for its otherworldy overtones.

Raphaella is a sad tango for mandolin, mandocello, six-string ukelele and guiro. The Flowers (That I Placed at My Ancerstor’s Grave Spontaneously Burst into Flame with Their Appreciation) waltzes along sadly with understatedly poignant clarinet from Darriau. Dancing Girls (of TriBeCaStan), another sad waltz credited as “traditional,” showcases yet another lute, the Middle Eastern rebab. TriBeCaStani Traffic Jam uses a whole swamp full of reed instruments  – the Chinese sheng, harmonica, krummhorn, Pakistani taxi horn and alto sax – to very vividly illustrate a street scene where nobody’s going anywhere.

Sunda Sunday is a hypnotic but not lazy vignette with Turre on shells and Greene playing both incisively minimalist steel drum and bowed tambur (a Turkish lute that resembles a banjo), followed by Lady Dez, a swinging, Balkan-inflected minor-key harmonica tune that sounds straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog. The best song on the album is the striking Black Ice, Kruth’s kelhorn (a popular Renaissance-era wooden flute with a marvelous tremolo tone) floating darkly over Greene’s rustic nyckelharpa (a Norwegian autoharp of sorts with two sets of reverberating strings). Of the rest of the cd’s fifteen tracks, The Bottle Man takes bluegrass to Bulgaria; Otha’s Blues takes the delta to Indonesia; Princess Rahsaanica takes a soul song east to India, and there’s a gamelanesque Sonny Sharrock cover. And the title track, a blazing, blaring march sailing along on the wings of Kruth’s Andalusian shepherd flute with a Master Musicians of Jajouka feel. To say that there’s something for everybody here would be the understatement of the millennium. Suggestion to Kruth and co. – send out a few unlabeled CDRs to world music reviewers and the people who put out the Rough Guide compilations and see how many people you can dupe into believing that this is the real thing. Which in a sense it is, the triumphantly indigenous music of the fearlessly syncretic people of TriBeCaStan!

July 13, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment