June 1, 2018
Wadada Leo Smith
TUM CD 049
After more than a half century of diverse music making, at 76, Wadada Leo Smith is now considered a major American composer, player and academic theoretician, with the consequent awards and accolades that accrue from that status. Yet they haven’t kept him away from new objectives. Acknowledged for his large-form and solo work, he’s also been part of many combos since he Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton hooked up in the late 1960s. Known for his skills in an all-acoustic environment these new CDs demonstrate his dexterity in an electronic environment and true to form each illuminates a singular aspect of that area.
A miniature outgrowth of his large ensemble electric Funk-Jazz-Fusion Yo Miles! project with guitarist Henry Kaiser, Najwa consists of five Smith compositions honoring deceased Jazz heroes: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Billie Holiday. Joining Smith and Kaiser are three other guitarists: Michael Gregory Jackson, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith, plus electric bassist Bill Laswell, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and percussionist Adam Rudolph, all of whom except Laswell have a history with the trumpeter. Consisting of six collective improvisations, Aspiration gathers musicians who have played together in varied contexts but never in this configuration. Besides Smith, they’re fellow trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, pianist Satoko Fujii and electronics manipulator Ikue Mori.
Besides his work as an instrumentalist alongside Shannon Jackson, Peter Brötzmann and others, Laswell has produced innovative sessions for multiple Pop and Jazz performers, and so part of Najwa’s sonic geography was created after-the-fact, with certain parts re-recorded, re-mixed and tweaked. That doesn’t mean the CD reeks of production, but it does explain why it often appears to be audible textures from a larger ensemble than an octet, including the suggestion of more than one trumpeter. While there are earlier intimation of Jimi Hendrix-styled guitar stylings along with smashing Rock-like or supple percussion pulses mixed with quivering or blasting brassiness, all guided by sluicing electric bass lines throughout, the session hits its first high point with the second selection which shares an overwrought and grandiloquent title along with most of the other tunes. Entitled “Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme”, it travels to many of the sonic shores Smith emphasizes. As the rugged percussion cycles, down-rush of guitar licks and ghostly sluicing bass lines intersect, the highly amplified trumpet moves on from plunger tones to a hoedown of tongue flutters and minute spits. Textures intensify as brass vibrato echoes across the massed strings’ tremolo exposition until percussion stiffens into a backbeat and Smith’s blowing turns straight-ahead with emotionalism substituting for volume loss. The climax blends in guitar flanges confirming the dedicatee’s spiritual transformation.
“Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of a Rare Beauty” is the other stand-out track. Here the electric-improvisational fusion characterized by bands like Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society and Laswell’s Last Exit push to the foreground, connected by the intermingling of shaped drum ruffs and guitar distortion that take in multiple layers of string-whines, arpeggiated runs and ever-higher-pitched trebly vibrations. Through it all however, Smith’s reflective tone includes aspects of melancholy, making the piece both a tragic threnody and a tuneful rhythmic program, with Laswell’s bass licks underscoring both parts.
Halving the number of players, not to mention shaving the track titles, Aspiration’s antecedents are hushed electro-acoustic forays rather than rambunctious fusion, with the six shared improvisations sometimes subdividing into duos. Another divergent trope is that rather than open-horn blasts or dreamy timbres played through mutes, Smith’s trumpet sound is brighter, dexterous and mostly mid-range than on the other session. At least it may be Smith, for with no solo identification there’s no indication if the occasional Gabriel-like brass wails are from him or Tamura. Generally though the trumpeters maintain contrapuntal challenges at varied paces, pitches volume, while Fujii’s accompaniment ranges from power pumping to minimal key stroking. Often opaque, Mori’s electronics chug along with looming and expanding oscillations. Appropriately titled, “Floating” provides glimpse of this strategy. Beginning with tweaking and buzzing processed space-signal-like wiggles, half-valve and fluid trumpet tones soon intrude. As zigzagging brass timbres move forward and up the scale strumming piano tones not only calm the proceedings, but also join with processed pulses to blend all textures into a wriggling yet complementary whole.
Although intermittent brass whistles or smears sometimes animate the four-sided improvisations, the most common mood is that of recital-like precision, heightened with a relaxed brass strategy. Should the doubled inner trumpet cries, extended with smears, snarls and half-valve glissandi evolve, as on “Evolution”, even coupled with clouds of synthesized pulsations, assured piano chording returns the narrative to its proper pace.
It’s obvious that at his age, Smith has little to prove musically. What these two CDs do prove however is that he’s still able to always produce almost faultless programs, no matter which associates or orientations are involved.
Track Listing: Najwa: 1. Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: A Resonance Change in the Millennium 2. Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme 3. Najwa 4. Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of a Rare Beauty 5. The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers
Personnel: Najwa: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Michael Gregory Jackson, Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith (guitars); Bill Laswell (electric bass); Pheeroan akLaff (drums) and Adam Rudolph (percussion)
Track Listing: Aspiration: 1. Intent 2. Liberation 3. Floating 4. Aspiration 5. Evolution 6. Stillness
Personnel: Aspiration: Wadada Leo Smith, Natsuki Tamura (trumpet); Satoko Fujii (piano) and Ikue Mori (electronics)