Wadada Leo Smith & Eco d’Alberi

June 6th 2013
Novara Jazz Series 001

Wadada Leo Smith/Jamie Saft/Joe Morris/Balàzs Pàndi

Red Hill

Rare Noise RNR 044

Resilient is one word that can easily be applied to trumpet-composer Wadada Leo Smith, 73. About a half century after he was one of the original Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM) thinkers who helped redefine improvised music, he’s still as busy as ever with new projects and recordings. Not only that, but like any forward-thinking experimenter, he’s unafraid to try out new concepts with new casts of characters. Both these sessions for instance find him working with ensembles – one American, one Italian – consisting of players at least three decades younger than him. With no incompatibility sensed, each interaction focuses on a unique aspect of Smith’s variant of creative music.

Recorded at am Italian festival on the title date, June 6th 203 features six go-for-broke improvisations involving Smith and the long-constituted Eco d'Alberi band – tenor and soprano saxophonist Edoardo Marraffa, pianist Alberto Braida, bassist Antonio Borghini and drummer Fabrizio Spera. Six studio tracks, Red Hill features the brass player with American bassist Joe Morris and keyboardist Jamie Saft as well as Hungarian drummer Balàzs Pàndi, who has become a more familiar presence on the improv scene playing with the likes of saxophonist Ivo Pdereleman. Curiously enough, despite the membership of the three in the punk-noise oriented Slobber Pup, this session is more relaxed and at points, more conventionally “jazzy”. On it, an often trumpet cup-muted Smith lets his Miles Davis-like inflections – evenly divided between 1950s balladic and 1970s electric – reach full sway, usually backed by caressing chords from Saft’s piano. “Janus Face” is an instance of this as flowing keyboard glissandi generically intersect tributary and river-like with curving brass grace notes, paced double bass-string bowing and restrained pumps from the drummer’s kit. Switching to electric keyboard, the color field shifts as if the four have moved from a bucolic impressionistic pencil sketch to become components in an action painting. Smith’s grace notes even out like pigments properly adhered in an oil painting, as do the others’ musical brush strokes, so the conclusion is both hard-edged and kinetic.

These creative impulses continue throughout, with variants of trumpet sequences framed by inventive painterly properties. For example, the concluding “Arfvedsonite could be termed a brass concerto on steroids. Initially cultivated trumpet motifs move alongside a measured rhythmic accompaniment of clatter cymbals, double bass string rubs and whimsical keyboard asides, until Smith effectively bolsters his output with half-valve plunger work. Creating a modified sfmato effect the resulting translucence exhilaratingly contrasts toughened brass cries with continuously restrained plucks, pops and pumps.

“Debts of Honor” is Saft’s keyboard dissertation on which the lyricism of his playing is showcased alongside a demonstration that he can shift dynamic parameters to (Cecil) Taylor-like intensity if he wishes. The others have similar interludes during which they can express themselves. For instance Pàndi craftily creaties shaded rumbles on “Agpaitic” in order to auspiciously relate to Morris’ guitar-like picking. With proper deference however, Smith’s stsus as the senior improviser is comprehensively confirmed. Electronically aided or not, he manages to project brass echoes into the mix whereever they’re most appropraite. Like a fasnciful master chef he also adds the spice of carefully considered growls or upward tremolos, simultaneously altering the tracks taste and feel, without losing his purity of tone.

This situation of mutual respect repeats itself on the other CD, except in live performance, the program is more kinetic and frenetic. A self-contained unit with a few CDs unde their belts, Eco d’Alberi hits the ground running with Marraffa expressive reed cries and Braida’s measured patterning always fitting tongue-in-groove along with Borghini’s strums, squeezes or pops and the timepiece-like precision of Spera’s sophisticated drumming. Smith’s enrichment of the form involves architectural heightening of the Eco d’Alberi modernist structure rather than piling on unwarranted sonic decorations. “Above The Trees Line” for example, becomes a slowly unfolding drama sparked with cracked glissandi, rumbling timbres and the clatter of little instruments. Smith’s crystal clear tone flutters that add fanciful sunniness breaks through the subsequent thunder cloud-like darkening of the tune, which references the theme’s Nordic sensibility.

Most pieces aren’t that demarcated however. Rather, the intense cooperation among all concerned makes it seem as if Smith’s trumpet has been successfully grafted onto the sounds of the Coltrane’s classic quintet at its most fervently creative. At junctures the brass player outputs harder and stratospheric snorts to counter Spera’s Elvin Jones-like drumming; joins the saxophonist in clearly leaking out focused tonal inferences to animate the tunes; and turns out Mileasean smears to modify Borghini’s often harsh double stopping. With the titles on this live date more for CD convenience than separation, the concert activity builds through peaks and valleys of passionate enthusiasm, touching on extended tempos and timbres, eventually climaxing in an ardent outpouring of elevated tonal drama from all five players.

In short, these CDs demonstrate that Smith is still finding new situations in which to be involved in the music and new textures to explore even after more than 50 years of playing. Choosing between an ecstatic in-the-moment live improvisation or a symmetrical studio session depends more on individual preference than any significant difference involved in this high-quality work.

By Ken Waxman

Track Listing: June: 1. Decision, Says The Source 2. The Great Oak 3. Full Moon 4. Above The Trees Line 5. Red Earth 6. The Zebra Goes Wild

Personnel: June: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Edoardo Marraffa (tenor and soprano saxophones); Alberto Braida (piano); Antonio Borghini (bass) and Fabrizio Spera (drums)

Track Listing: Red: 1. Gneiss 2. Janus Face 3. Agpaitic 4. Tragic Wisdom 5. Debts of Honor 6. Arfvedsonite

Personnel: Red: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Jamie Saft (piano and Fender Rhodes); Joe Morris (bass) and Balàzs Pàndi (drums)