May 27, 2010
Wadada Leo Smith
Cuneiform Rune 290/291
During a career that stretches from the mid-1960s, Mississippi-born trumpeter and educator Wadada Leo Smith has never followed one path. A founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), Smith – who excelled at playing acoustic music with stylists such as reedist Anthony Braxton and drummer Günter Baby Sommer, has also become comfortable with electric instruments, most notably in the Yo Miles! project with guitarist Henry Kaiser.
However while accepting the strictures affiliated with thicker beats and electricity Smith also doesn’t kowtow to any accepted formula. Plugged-in wave forms are used in his compositions and performances exactly in the same fashion as acoustic timbres. Take this impressive two-CD set as an example. On the first disc, the percussion input is doubled, making what formerly was a Golden quartet a quintet; while on disc two, with the Organic ensemble, the string section includes not only bass, electric bass and cello, but also features at least three and sometimes four electric guitarists.
Of course it helps that the sympathetic drummers on disc one are the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Don Moye and Pheeroan AkLaff, who has backed everyone from saxophonist Oliver Lake to a West African dance company. The other “Goldens” are String Trio of New York’s bassist John Lindberg, and Vijay Iyer, whose elegant piano licks are complemented by synthesizer patterns that never suggest pop music. Lindberg and AkLaff are also part of Organic, as is cellist Okkyung Lee and electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson, two certified New York downtowners. But much of the compositional heft comes from the guitarists who rang from Wilco-associate Nels Cline; Lake-affiliate Michel Gregory; Brandon Ross, who sometimes plays in an acoustic string duo; plus Lamar Smith who is added to the group on two numbers.
To get an idea of the different strategies, compare the quintet’s version of “South Central L.A. Kulture” with the one done by the nonet. The former, about four minutes longer, features a core groove section involving cascading echoes and repetitive modulations from the synthesizer plus backbeat drumming. But this doesn’t stop Iyer from chording distinctively or exposing with high-frequency key fanning and forte glissandi. Meantime Smith’s flutter tonguing is expressed in flanges and distended breaths. Altering the tonal centre by the final variant, the trumpeter sums up the theme a capella with electrified reverb.
Recorded 10 months later, the nonet version of the tune seems to serendipitously pick up where the first version ended. Right from the top, unaccompanied echoing grace notes and braying reverb from the trumpeter are heard, quickly followed by the almost opaque coloration of four electric guitars. Slurring engorged and distorted tone rows skywards, the multiplied flanges mean that this “South Central…” moves in allegro and agitato fashion in contrast to the andante pace of the quintet version. With the two basses and drummer leaning into the pulsating beat, Smith’s rubato changes are answered by a contrapuntal guitar licks. Later, cross flanging and distorted phaser fills from three guitarists gear into overdrive on “Organic”. The resulting tessitura is angular and cross- wired when the thumb-popped electric bass licks are audible, but is also sliced contrapuntally with cellist Lee’s sharp cuts.
Nevertheless, the other tracks pale when compared to “Angela Davis”. It’s like injecting Parlament-Funkadelic grease into a polite Motown pop-rocker. Sluicing and slithering electric bass patterns, heavy drum ruffs plus antipodal guitar-hero licks – likely from Cline – solidify and expand the deep-funk groove until the resulting rasgueado reaches the six-string equivalent of reed multiphonics. Meanwhile the cellist’s pedal point riffs skitter and saw through the interface. As Lee’s spiccato lines ascend and descend they’re matched with concentrated trumpet flutter-tonguing that only stands aside for further guitar lick distortion. Smith’s soaring tremolo first parallels the guitarists’ variations, then, following a pause created by AkLaff’s cymbal resonation, constructs a coda of chromatic lines seconded by moderato-pitched cello stops.
Lacking the string section, on the Golden Quintet disc, it’s Iyer and Lindberg who join Smith to create the proper response to the dual drummers’ double-timed backbeat, ruffs and flams. With the trumpeter often linear and graceful in his parts during “Umar at the Dome of the Rock, Parts 1 & 2”, for instance, the pianist’s high-frequency dynamics and the bassist’s guitar-like flanging prevent the backing for these tunes from degenerating into no more than percussion discussions. Using the power generated by slapping the wood on his instrument’s belly and waist, plus snaps on his bass neck, Lindberg creates enough space for Smith’s bugle-like chromatic notes to elongate tones without splintering and define the parameters of the selection.
“Al-Shadhili’s Litany of the Sea: Sunrise” is more of the same, with the moderato composition sustained by Smith’s sluicing grace notes – which seem to vibrate internally as well as splutter externally – plus presto runs and emphasized arpeggios from Iyer’s keys. Buzzing acro slides and parsed piano chords enliven the performance’s mid section, which concludes in stop-time.
Offering two contexts in which to appreciate Smith’s compositional smarts and different bands’ fulfillment of his ideas, Spiritual Dimensions may be the definitive recorded set for capturing the trumpeter’s unique musical visions.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Disc 1: Track listing: CD1: 1. Al-Shadhili’s Litany of the Sea: Sunrise 2. Pacifica 3. Umar at the Dome of the Rock, Parts 1 & 2 4. Crossing Sirat 5. South Central L.A. Kulture Disc 2: 1. South Central L.A. Kulture* 2. Angela Davis 3.Organic 4. Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy*
Personnel: Disc 1: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Vijay Iyer (piano and synthesizer); John Lindberg (bass) and Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye (drums) Disc 2: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Michael Gregory, Lamar Smith*, Brandon Ross (guitar); Nels Cline (6- and 12-string guitars); Okkyung Lee (cello); John Lindberg (bass); Skuli Sverrisson (electric bass) and Pheeroan AkLaff (drums)