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Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira
Dark Lady of the Sonnets
TUM CD 023

Since the mid-1960s, Wadada Leo Smith has led or performed in innumerable creative music ensembles, ranging from duos to orchestras. While each configuration has presented challenges and opportunities for the composer-brass instrumentalist, Smith has demonstrated a unique regard for trios. In duos and larger ensembles, musicians are regularly assigned overt lead and/or support roles, according to entrenched, if not antiquated practices. Trios, Smith contends, entail a specific rigor on the part of each musician, a heightened responsibility for sustaining equilibrium within the ensemble, without which the structural integrity of the music is jeopardized. Smith speaks from experience. While trios are barely represented in a lengthy discography spanning solo recitals, evocations of Miles Davis’ electric period and a collaboration with Chimurenga pioneer Thomas Mapfumo, at least two historically significant trios underline Smith’s point.

The first was formed in 1967 with Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins shortly after Smith joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Its history speaks to the transient nature of creative music ensembles. Despite being dubbed Creative Construction Company, its collective identity was quickly subsumed by Braxton’s independent, phenomenal rise. The trio’s only studio session took place in 1969 and yielded Silence; comprised of compositions by Jenkins and Smith, the album bore Braxton’s name when released by Freedom in ‘75. They recorded more frequently in augmented ensembles before, during and after their pivotal ‘69-‘70 European expedition. Of the three other albums from this period issued under Braxton’s name that included either Muhal Richard Abrams or Steve McCall to form quartets, two included compositions by Jenkins and Smith. Two volumes of 1970 concert recordings, the only albums released using the Creative Construction Company name, featured album-length compositions by Jenkins performed by a sextet with Abrams, McCall and Richard Davis.

The absence of traditional anchoring instruments like piano, bass and drums, and the predominantly treble clef pitch range of the trio’s core instrumentation – violin, alto saxophone and trumpet, the latter capable of the lowest pitches – forced the trio to devise strategies to achieve a full ensemble sound. Smith’s composition “Silence” is illuminating in this regard; more importantly, this is the earliest recorded example of Smith’s music in which a critical distinction he makes about the role of traditions in creative music can be discerned. By 1969, silence was all but trademarked by John Cage; instead of following Cage’s tradition of using silence within predetermined structures, Smith brought silence into a creative music context, where form is only fully realized in performance. Essentially, silence becomes the fourth musician, engaging in a back and forth between the others. As the piece develops, the trio responds to silence more quickly, their statements become progressively longer, and they enlist more auxiliary instruments. In the process, the gravity of each silence changes.

Smith revisited the idea of a creative music-informed response to traditions with the first recorded edition of New Dalta Ahkri – the trio with Wes Brown and Anthony Davis – on the 1974 Kabell album, Reflectivity. It is noteworthy that the first ensemble recording documenting Smith’s Ahkreanvention system is largely drawn from his collection of six compositions, The Ellington Pieces, as Ellington’s pioneering approach to composition and performance can be considered an antecedent of Smith’s emergent system. Whereas Ellington gave musicians unprecedented latitude to interpret materials and structure, Smith’s supplementary symbol-based notation and performer-centric concepts of form made it incumbent upon each musician to shape a piece in real time. The scores reprinted in the booklet for Kabell Years: 1971-1979 (Tzadik) suggest a balancing of musician-defined spaces and scored coordinates that leave some decisions about pitch and rhythm to the ensemble.

Again, silence rounds out a foursome, albeit with less stridency than on “Silence.” This is attributable both to the pensive, even elegiac tone of much of the material (Ellington passed six months prior to the recording) and to the arguably warmer palette of brass, bass and piano (augmented by indigenous flutes and small percussion). The aptly-referenced tone of Reflectivity was also emblematic of changes in Smith’s life; having recently settled his family in the relatively bucolic, yet culturally vibrant New Haven, and attracting a pool of young musicians like Brown, Davis and Pheeroan akLaff who were eager to explore new conceptual terrain, Smith was developing as a leader in the fullest sense, outside the collective context of the AACM. “Silence” and other early recordings notwithstanding, Smith’s recordings from the Kabell period (including albums issued on ECM, Moers Music and Nessa) established him not simply as a distinctive improviser-composer but as a master teacher and horizon-extending theorist, as well.

Although a subsequent edition of New Dalta Ahkri with Dwight Andrews and Bobby Naughton and the cooperative unit with Peter Kowald and Günter Sommer further explicated what Davis, in his booklet note for Kabell Years, refers to as Smith’s “literal carving of musical space within a dramatic silence” (Davis’ italics) and his “development of independent, simultaneous structures,” trios ceased to be even a secondary conduit for Smith’s music beginning in the early ‘80s. The wait was worth it; Dark Lady of the Sonnets is a sterling example of the exquisite balance Smith’s concepts can create within a trio. That balance is even more precarious with Mbira, given the disparity of sound production between Smith’s trumpet, Min Xiao-Fen’s pipa, and akLaff’s drum kit, one replete with twin floor toms and a rather vast array of cymbals. Fortunately, Min’s full-throttle strumming cuts through in the album’s several intense passages, giving Smith free range to structure an album with widely diverse materials.

Silence asserts itself early in the proceedings; a homage to his mother, the multi-sectioned “Sarah Bell Wallace” commences with a ruminative exchange, Min’s yearning lines and strummed micro bursts are silence-dotted, while akLaff’s rubato asides and Smith’s mix of feathered phrases and bell-like tones are bracketed by pauses of varied duration. This prelude-like section ends as the music’s emotional charge is building; but instead of dissipating the energy, the ensuing silence increases it. When akLaff announces the next passage with percolating cross rhythms, the sparks start flying. Smith enters first, his pentatonic lines and trills give the music a fleeting Cherry-Blackwell feel. A slashing Min raises the temperature; Smith’s playing becomes more textured and spikes with intensity; all the while, akLaff keeps steaming steadily. Min and Smith lay out, presumably giving way to an akLaff solo; but his drumming peters out. Another short, flint-like silence marks the beginning of the concluding section, its memorializing tone bringing structural and emotional closure to the piece.

Silence’s strong presence on “Sarah Bell Wallace” is almost matched on “Zulu Water Festival.” Smith’s initial pause-punctuated fanfares create the space for Min and akLaff to slip in rejoinders; Min’s lines then take on a riff-like quality, creating a greater mass of sound when Smith and akLaff vigorously respond; a closing scored passage exemplifies how Smith can pack perspective-shifting surprise into every note, let alone every pause. Yet, on the remaining three compositions, the anticipation of the energizing silences heard on “Sarah Bell Wallace” sharpens the listening process as much as the actual well-placed silences. This is particularly the case on the title piece, which shifts from delicate contours where drums, pipa and muted trumpet curl around Min’s luminous, Chinese classically-trained voice to a declamatory finale. In every instance, silence is not merely the empty vessel into which the listener pours in associations, but a dynamic voice in the music; repeatedly, silence makes Mbira a quartet.

Dark Lady of the Sonnets appears concurrently with celebrations of Wadada Leo Smith’s 70th birthday. It confirms that 70 is a ripe age, and that ripeness is all.
–Bill Shoemaker

International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville

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