WADADA LEO SMTH AND THE GOLDEN QUARTET

The Year of the Elephant
Pi Recordings P104

Without trying to be flippant, it seems that a lot of Miles Davis' conception has rubbed off on trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith since did his YO, MILES! tribute disc with guitarist Henry Kaiser a couple of years back.

While this new CD with his all-star Golden Quartet only pays homage to Davis on two tracks, much of Smith's Harmon-muted work here resembles the sort of brass constructions Miles used in the period from IN A SILENT WAY through BITCHES BREW and beyond. Smith doesn't come up with an outright imitation, or produce a CD that's less than attractive. It's just with the talent involved, you feel so much could have been accomplished. As a matter of fact when you're not reminded of Miles here, the tunes often take on that air of precocious profundity that characterize the style of Keith Jarrett, a former Davis sideman and present employer of drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Now much less in the foreground than during his time with Davis, or with his own series of excellent bands featuring everyone from trumpeter Lester Bowie and guitarist John Abercrombie to saxophonist David Murray up to the 1980s, most of the time here the drummer appears content to produce light, practically metreless accompaniment. Pianist Anthony Davis doesn't come across that differently either. Acknowledged for the four operas he has written plus his academic studies at the University of California at San Diego, the pianist loosens his formal structuralism here only to the extent that his touch resembles at various times different Davis including Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Jarrett and Chick Corea.

Linchpin of bands ranging from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to the Ritual Trio, bassist Malachi Favors, an early member of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), fares best in his role. Although the andante tempo of most of these pieces doesn't allow room for the arco and pizzicato advances of which he's capable, he prods the rhythm enough so it doesn't collapse into stasis.

Perhaps it's the forthright mysticism that Smith, Dizzy Gillespie chair at the California Institute of the Arts, now professes that appears to strip the backbone from his compositions here. But his dabbling with electronics, chamber ensembles, spoken word, philosophy and poetry also seems to have altered the writing and playing ideas of someone who was an early AACM associate of experimenters like multi-reedist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins.

That's why, when compared to the hushed, meditative sounds — all long-lined muted trumpet and feathery electric or acoustic piano meditations, that characterize the rest of the tracks — the two Davis salutes take on a different mien.

Based on a hearty, blues-based pattern complete with right-handed comping and keyboard clipping from Davis, "I-II) Star/Seed" gets most of its character from Favors' acoustic rhythms. You could say, in fact, that his asides and excursions offer more basic bass color than any of Miles' more-vaulted electric bass sidemen. Noteworthy too is the pianist's unison work with Smith, combining for a time to create a single timbre. However DeJohnette's cymbal-rich solo is so low-key that it doesn't cause a ripple on the surface of the tune.

Even better is "III) Blue Fire", a 14-minute-plus composition where Davis varying his approach from acoustic Evans-Kelley coloration to Corea-Joe Zawinul electric incisions plus a frequently reprised gospel theme which relates more to some of Cannonball Adderley or Charles Mingus' tunes than anything Davis ever performed.

While there's no disputing that these veteran musicians deserve their impressive status and have created a disc that will interest those who want to catch up with their newest musical designs, others will find the end product less sanguine. Considering what else could have been done, maybe silver or bronze could be a better description for this quartet than gold.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Al-Madinah 2. Piru 3. The Zamzam Well a Stream of Pure Light 4. Kangeroo's Hollow 5. The Year of the Elephant 6. Miles Star in 3 parts: I-II) Star/Seed III) Blue Fire

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet and flugelhorn); Anthony Davis (piano and sythesizer); Malachi Favors Maghostut (bass); Jack deJohnette (drums and sythesizer)