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Wadada Leo Smith
TUM Records TUM Box 002

Wadada Leo Smith + Milford Graves + Bill Laswell
Sacred Ceremonies
TUM Records TUM Box 003

Wadada Leo Smith + Douglas R. Ewart + Mike Reed
Sun Beams of Shimmering Light
Astral Spirits AS166

Wadada Leo Smith celebrates his 80th birthday this year. The Finnish label TUM Records is marking this milestone with the release of twenty discs of Smith’s music spread across several releases. These include a seven-disc set of his string quartets, an album by his Great Lakes Quartet, a trio with Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnette, and four discs of trumpet/drum duets with DeJohnette, Pheeroan akLaff, Han Bennink, and Andrew Cyrille. The first releases in this bounty are the two three-disc collections Trumpet and Sacred Ceremonies.

Smith recorded Trumpet – his eighth solo trumpet release – in a fifteenth-century stone church in Finland with perfect acoustics. In the liner notes he writes that the trumpet is “limited only by/One’s levels of inspiration,/Imagination and execution./It is constructed in a form that allows/The purest and most imaginary/Sonic expression/In the Great Beauty.” And later, the trumpet is “an instrument made for the dreamer of dreams, the one who can authenticate the dream into reality.” Over two and a quarter hours Smith becomes that dreamer of dreams, offering his singular vision of what the trumpet can do and can be. Over the course of “Metallic Rainbow (for Steve McCall),” Smith’s trumpet sound changes depending on his articulation, rhythms, and phrases. Trills and tremolos are splintered, long tones are straight and unaffected, staccato pips are bright and gleaming. On “Howard and Miles – A Photographic Image” he quickly switches between mute and open, taking on two personalities almost simultaneously. On the five-part “Rashomon” suite (inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film) and the title composition, which concludes the set, Smith explores the seemingly limitless possibilities of the trumpet sound: airy flourishes that are more breath than pitch, pinched notes, radiant warmth, multiphonics, tones that in another context might be confused for the human voice or even electronics. The four-part suite “Discourses on the Sufi Path,” which is dedicated to the Sufi master Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, best demonstrates the melodic and timbral range of Smith’s trumpet. One cannot truly predict which direction the melody will go, the line it will draw, the colors it will take, and the sounds it will embody, from fractured and careening runs and pointillistic notes hung in the air to flurries that can’t leave the horn fast enough and short bursts that make long tones seem that much longer.

This set is not wholly about the trumpet’s sound, but also of the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual traditions and practices in which Smith creates it. Several pieces are named for or dedicated to Smith’s peers, such as Leroy Jenkins, Amina Claudine Myers, and Reggie Workman. Others, such as “Malik al-Shabazz and the People of the Shahada” and a piece inspired by a thirteenth-century Sufi saint reflect Smith’s spiritual practice and study of Islam and Sufism. He is in communion with a power that reaches far beyond the limiting constraints of what “jazz” might signify. Yes, the music on Trumpet can be challenging, but perhaps the best way to experience it is to carve out a space where you can exist alongside it insulated from any outside stimuli. Listen to it as a way to practice being present and mindful in the moment. In a world where there is so little that is seemingly beyond our control, actively use this music to make a world of your own design that cannot be infringed upon, even if it is only for forty or forty-five minutes at a time.

Wadada Leo Smith, © Petri Haussila

Recorded in 2015 and 2016, Sacred Ceremonies features Bill Laswell and Milford Graves. Disc one is Smith in duo with Graves; disc two is a duo with Laswell; disc three features the trio. Disc one’s opening three-part suite “Nyoto” sets the pace for the rest of the album. Here, Smith’s tone is often warmer and rounder than penetrating. He moves from an almost playful and innocent exuberance to moments of severity to later becoming agitated and angular. Graves offers so many textures and polyrhythms that he does the work of two drummers. He doesn’t hit the drums so much as he pulls the sounds out of the skins and cymbals, giving the drums almost a phantom quality. On “Baby Dodds in Congo Square” Graves seems to be channeling the whole of the Afro-diasporic drum tradition as one might have heard in it antebellum Congo Square. The album’s final two cuts, “Poetic Sonics” and “The Poet: Play Ebody, Play Ivory (Dedicated to Henry Dumas),” take a more severe direction, with Graves giving the music more air, giving Smith’s somber and plaintive trumpet plenty of space. The disc’s pieces don’t come off as a succession of discrete compositions so much as they are moments in a long conversation between Smith and Graves; they sound as a continuous stream with no beginning or end, a continuum of sound.

Smith and Laswell previously recorded as a duo on the 2014 album The Stone. Laswell also appeared on Smith’s recent Najwa. Compared to the first disc, theirs takes a different tack, with each composition expressing its own character. The opener “Ascending the Sacred Waterfall” is an expansive, slow, and almost austere meditation. Laswell lays down a funk line on “Prince – A Blue Diamond Spirit,” which Smith adds some grease to. It is as if the ghost of the Purple One was present in the studio. “Tony Williams” is a bouncing, playful tune, and where one might expect the closer “Minnie Ripperton – The Chicago Bronzeville Master Blaster” to mine the same vein as “Prince,” it is another pensive work with just a few whiffs of the funk. Throughout the album, Laswell serves as both a rhythmic and melodic counterpart to Smith as well as a soundscape architect, using myriad effects to create ambient swells and textures in often unexpected places. On “Donald Ayler’s Rainbow Summit” Laswell conjures what could be a tortured, static-laden, wide-band radio broadcast beamed in from another time and place.

Laswell dials the electronic wizardry back on the trio recording, on which the dynamic from the Smith/Graves set returns. Graves and Laswell are a near constant presence, with Laswell working to find the nooks and crannies in the churn of the drums, which given how much space Laswell’s bass sound can take up, doesn’t always work. Laswell’s rhythmic feel, however, provides metric and temporal context and grounding. On “Myths of Civilizations and Revolutions,” Smith makes effective use of space, with the breaks between his phrases and exclamations often longer than the phrases themselves. Throughout, the overall texture is fairly static – the main surprises coming from Smith’s endlessly unpredictable imagination. What most stands out about Sacred Ceremonies is how the music and interpersonal dynamics shift in the different configurations – which traits come to the fore, which recede, which compromises are made. It’s a fascinating study in the ways master musicians with their own voices adapt to different contexts. For many people, six discs of profound music the likes of which found on Trumpet and Sacred Ceremonies, along with the fourteen others on the way this year from TUM, would be a career. For Smith, it’s just another chapter in what has been an especially prolific and fruitful decade-plus stretch.

Given his prolificity, it shouldn’t be surprising that Smith’s 2021 output is not limited to his TUM releases. Sun Beams of Shimmering Light is a live trio outing on which he is joined by Douglas R. Ewart on reeds and Mike Smith on drums. Over the course of five improvisations, the trio never quite comes together with a shared purpose. For a band with such artistry and pedigree, one gets the sense that none of the musicians felt comfortable setting, or even suggesting an agenda, each being perhaps hesitant, polite, or even deferential. On “Constellation and Conjunctional Spaces” Smith and Ewart (on bassoon) play off of each other, matching pitches, handing off phrases, but throughout the nature of their relationship isn’t clear: Friendly conversation? Spirited debate? Sibling rivalry? The title track has more weight, intention, and depth, with a balance between all voices. Reed’s shakers, percussion, and brushwork frame two penetrating solos from Smith and Ewart. Where Smith’s muted trumpet deals in mystery, Ewart’s flute is warm and reassuring. On “Super Moon Rising,” Smith presents a brash, military fanfare – the kind of direct action the album needs more of. Later on that track, Reed offers a quasi-12/8 that could take the music down a potentially fruitful avenue, but he gets little buy-in from his bandmates. Throughout the somewhat meandering cut Reed’s drumming almost feels too clean, almost proper. Smith’s lengthy solo dominates “Unknown Forces,” on which he employs a mix of pure, gargled, and fractured tones. The piece would stand on its own as a solo track, but when Reed and Ewart (on soprano) finally enter, it feels tacked on. The set ends with “Dark Tango,” introduced with a promising three-note waltz figure that recedes too quickly before its possibilities can be explored. It, like the album more broadly, doesn’t quite reach its full potential – solid, but rarely scintillating.
–Chris Robinson

Intakt Records

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