Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira

Dark Lady of the Sonnets
TUM CD 023

Prime example of how a full-out Jazz-improv CD can be enlivened with unusual timbres and instruments without becoming a so-called ethnic project, is illustrated by Dark Lady of the Sonnets. This program of five compositions by trumpeter and flugelhornist Wadada Leo Smith balances his brass textures with the African-American Jazz timbres of percussionist Pheeroan akLaff plus Nanjing-born Min Xiao-Fen’s skills on pipa and voice. But never is the Orientalist exoticism emphasized over the other tones. For her part Min uses her rhythmic and biting vocal gymnastics to complement the others’ work. Similarly, although the group is named for the African thumb piano, clichéd Africanism are about as far from this music as baroque references.

Not that the Mississippi-born Smith, who as a professor at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, wouldn’t be able to add such references to his work. Building on a Delta Blues background, his innovations have been on display since his earliest exposure alongside other Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians like saxophonist Anthony Braxton. Today he immerses himself equally in many ensembles which alternately create sounds related to acoustic Jazz, Jazz-Rock fusion and even electro-acoustic music. On the faculty of Wesleyan University, as well as playing regularly with many bands, Detroit-born akLaff has gigged with players as different as saxophonist Oliver Lake and pianist Anthony Davis. Traditionally trained as a virtuoso on the ancient, pear-shaped, vertically played four-string lute, Min has expanded its sonic base, working not only in long-establish Chinese ensembles, but also with Western symphony orchestras and with improvisers such as trombonist George Lewis and guitarist Derek Bailey.

Her string snapping and strums are upfront as early as the first track, “Sarah Bell Wallace” named for Smith’s late mother. While Min applies jittering pointillism through guitar-like licks and linear strums, the brass man evokes graceful tones which soon evolve to note-swallowing chromatic runs. The drummer’s initial ceremonial rolls turn to rebounds and ruffs in the second section to confirm the thematic pulse. By the finale this anti-dirge has honored Mrs. Smith with a series of heartfelt, swelling brass timbres and multi-tempi string strums.

“Blues: Cosmic Beauty” and “Mbira” highlight Smith’s compositional fortitude when he chooses to write with specific purposes in mind. The former is a celebratory tone poem, while the later is a two-part ballet suite. Again as unbeautiful as “Sarah Bell Wallace” is unsentimental, “Blues: Cosmic Beauty” isn’t a blues but a collection of kinetic licks that shape themselves into the desired sequence. Min’s stroked s often reference corrugated güiro-like tones before reaching a mid-section of consistent and connective rasgueado. Meanwhile Smith’s harsher and harder tremolo tones finally attain a release in repeated high-pitched heraldic tones. Similarly akLaff’s dark rumbles and bass drum thumps attain appropriate celebratory cohesion when mixed with the trumpeter’s flutter-tonguing and the pipaist’s tremolo licks.

Destined as ballet music and based on Zimbabwean Shona culture, “Mbira” is the antithesis of expected Dark Continent sounds. Although the drummer is present, playing shuffles plus stick and rim movements; his strokes populate and moderate the interface without being overly percussive. Instead the narrative takes in not only Smith’s watery flutters and piercing, high-pitched triplets, but also Min’s dual exposition. From the pipa come slack-key slides and stretched pizzicato patterns, but from her mouth issue a collection of vocal improvisations. These encompass strident squeaks and pants, reptilian hisses and growling basso guffaws. Glottal ululations rather than words this animalism contrasts markedly with the trumpeter’s staccato lines and kinetic pummels from the drummer. Smith’s high-pitched and fortissimo timbres serve as the tune’s climax.

An object lesson is subordinating ethic timbres to other uses, Dark Lady of the Sonnets is both uniquely exceptional as well as well as more proof of Smith`s creative versatility.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Sarah Bell Wallace 2. Blues: Cosmic Beauty 3. Zulu Water Festival 4. Dark Lady of the Sonnets 5. Mbira

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet and flugelhorn); Min Xiao-Fen (pipa and voice) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums)