Reviews of Recent Recordings
Wadada Leo Smith
Courtesy of Cuneiform Records
If you know anything about Wadada Leo Smith’s music over nearly a half century, it’s that he’s compelled by big ideas. Whether playing solo or in a large ensemble, whether realizing an Ankhrasmation visual score or reckoning with American history itself, there’s a consistent fascination with philosophy, religion, embodiment, and identity. But, you might be wondering, where did the Great Lakes compositions and this new suite inspired by national parks come from? It’s been there all along.
In 1973-74, when writing about the American tradition of musical mavericks with which he identifies, Smith channeled Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman when he wrote:
Smith’s longstanding fascination with the possibility of a universal music is simply revealing another aspect of itself in these recent releases. Here, over the course of two rich discs, he focuses in on the American landscape and its historical/spiritual implications. He’s working with an augmented version of his Golden Quartet, now a Golden Quintet comprised of Smith on trumpet (and conduction), pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, supplemented here by cellist Ashley Walters (and the project is realized fully by video artist Jesse Gilbert).
The opener, “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718),” unfurls with a deep, deep pulse track from Lindberg and akLaff, one that’s slowly interwoven with elegant tendrils and cloud-wisps from Smith and Walters, while Davis ruminates almost like a Greek chorus. It blooms and dissipates, dissonant swirls and bright, hot brass notes taking shape in the rich atmosphere. Something about the use of groove and sustain here achieves an almost Milesian tension, especially audible during Davis’ cascading solo and in Smith’s use of sudden halts and pindrop silences. The whole thing is so elegant, it practically achieves liftoff. Smith’s expansive understanding of national treasures and American landscape is enshrined in “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park” (and if you don’t know the great work of the dedicatee, you have homework). Here again there is space enough to allow for the ample resonance of bass, cello, and piano in particular. They emerge in limpid pools. They waft on the current of their own exploration. There are long hushes and pauses, in which time waits for notes and energies to coalesce in a brief bloom of heat and intensity. This piece segues gracefully into the elegant repetitions of “The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872,” the year when Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park. Davis steals the show here, as his glorious, fulsome playing glides along the clicking pulse-track until a declamatory, but not showy, conclusion.
The second disc opens with the brooding melancholy of “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC.” As if recapitulating in sound the long-form organic growth of terra- and aquaform, the piece stirs to life slowly and in several directions simultaneously: chordal movement, halting bass, trumpet clarion. It shifts in time into bright bustle, an energy overflow of pizzicato strings and drums, and Smith soaring. The brume over the water is dispelled with big booming punctuations and elegant, spacious lines beyond pulse. And then, a sudden, unexpected groove, half funk and half Japanese traditional music somehow, rears up. Smith delivers a fantastically exuberant, upper-register solo, followed up by punchy piano, and more slashing, cross-cutting statements – the river surging in its early vigor. Little staccato blips open “Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890” and its spacious course seems to limn the vast sky. “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890,” rolls along on a low-end churn for skittering brass and roiling piano, big shapes that make their way to a lonely, muted trumpet solo. From this, the indomitable sound rises once more in a stirring pedal drone and several intense improvisations before akLaff thunders a conclusion.
Even among Smith’s extraordinary accomplishments of late, this one is compelling and sounds especially important. Maybe because of the boiling agonisms of the season of its release, the record seems to remind us to focus on transience and permanence. Whitman’s heart music plays on in the skies over America, and Smith’s does too.