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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)
May 27, 2010
Jean-Marc Foltz/Bruno Chevillion
Anthony Burr & Skúli Sverrisson
A Thousand Incidents Arise
The Workers Insitute
By Ken Waxman
March 6, 2006
Should two more divergent methods exist of organizing a bass clarinetdouble bass interaction, then theyre probably not terrestrial.
Utilizing electronic processing in some way on the four tracks of their CD, Icelandic bassist Skúli Sverrisson and Australian clarinetist Anthony Burr seem intent on burying the customary textures of their instruments. In contrast, bassist Bruno Chevillion and clarinetist Jean-Marc Foltz, both French, intensify the wood, string and metal construction of their chosen implements to emphasize tones, unaltered with adds-ons.
Perhaps the sounds on A Thousand Incidents Arise should most properly be dubbed ambient-electronic, while those on Cette Opacité, called acoustic invention. Recorded in concert at a Strasbourg jazz festival, the concordance exhibited on the second disc, relates more to a shared vision than co-nationalism. While making an exact comparison between the duos may be akin to similarly evaluating a French poodle and a koala bear, Sverrissons and Burrs linkage appears weakened by an overflow of mutated electronics.
Studio-bound, the bass-like qualities of Sverrissons instrument almost vanish on sections of the CDs tracks, replaced with unidentifiable, minutely shifting timbres and extended periods of stasis. Along with reduced pitchsliding and micro tone-layering, droning washes of organ-like tones seep into every part of the compositions. At best, the result is mesmerizing; at worse sleep-inducing.
Waves of ambient glissandi attain such overpowering proportions in fact, that it almost seems as if theyre spreading all over the soundfield, the way water breached the levees around the New Orleans and enveloped the lands below sea level. Oddly enough, as someone whose experience has included collaboration with semi-minimalists such as contemporary composers Alvin Lucier, John Zorn and La Monte Young, its surprising that these efforts come not from Brisbane-native Burr, but from Reykjaviks Sverrisson, who most often works with post-fusion improvisers like Americans, reedist Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black.
When Sverrisson finally exposes a recognizable double bass tone on Except in Memory the final track the lower-pitched flanged chords nonetheless appear in a soup of undulating, outwardly radiating textures perhaps also triggered by the bass man. Burrs irregularly vibrated contributions protrude from the mix like raisins in a serving of porridge.
These slender reed-biting flutters and vibrations also shape Change is Far More Radical than We Are at First Inclined to Suppose, the discs verbosely-titled, almost 16½-minute, centrepiece. Somehow the near-static and largo reverb perhaps processed by Sverrissons effects pedal solidify into near-ecclesiastical, layered harmonies. On top of this appear Burrs woody portamento textures, overblowing and pitchsliding in such a way that the largo modes are opaque, yet translucent enough to let individual possibilities assert themselves.
Ironically, its Cette Opacités all-acoustic set whose title loosely translates as this opaqueness. Yet any murk Foltz and Chevillion create is as transparent as glass when compared to A Thousand Incidents Arise. That may be because the two rather than identifying with contemporary so-called serious music like Burr or a version of fusion like Sverrisson, are primarily jazzers, with only Foltz, dipping his toes into New music. Even so one of those outlets is as part of Le Trio de Clarinettes, the other member of whom Sylvain Kassap and Armand Angster also have improv credentials. Besides that, Foltz plays in many bands with Chevillon, most notably pianist Stéphan Olivas combo. Avignon-native Chevillon is first-call bassist for top improvisers in France clarinetist Louis Sclavis and guitarist Marc Ducret, to name two and from overseas such as American drummer Paul Motian.
Concerned with expanding the technical limitations of the bull fiddle on this CD, he and Foltz participate in nine string-reed jousts that vibrate sonics either against or in concordance with one another. In the midst of the bassist resonating sweeping spiccato lines and jetes, the clarinetist responds with snorts, whoops and echoes from his oral cavity that buzz with lip and tongue motion. Sometimes legato and zart the two instruments gorgeous harmonies sound almost traditionally impressionistic. Other times the two explode into shrill aviary quivers that only latterly segment into polyphonic vibrations.
Without electronics, undulating waveforms are still evident, as they unfold often linking Foltzs experiments in circular breathing with Chevillons underplayed string plasticity or percussive raps on his axes ribs and belly. Sometimes the color field is organized in a pointillistic fashion, other times with expansive strokes.
Two tracks are particularly memorable. Entre faire et entendre has Foltz on straight clarinet and Chevillon pulsing complementary bass tones as if the two were King of Swing clarinetist Benny Goodman and bassist Arvell Shaw playing with a contemporary sheen. Adopting a proper pre-modern tone, the reed man fluidly sputters so as to match the bassists double-stopped and slapped bass lines. Midway through, textures reach a polyphonic crescendo then divide as Foltzs high-pitched portamento settles across frailing, single-note bass plucks, and reappear for a final coda of minimal clarinet breaths.
On the other hand, the almost nine minutes of This imbalance and its consequences redirects Foltzs echoing and choked reed-biting with col legno jetes that are as authoritative as they are resonating. Moving contrapuntally towards the finale, Chevillon exposes the double-stopping buzzing textures of the strings and Foltz a harsh, overblown irregular vibration that insect with the bull fiddles output like attached pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Both Burr and Sverrisson and Foltz and Chevillon are extending bass-reed literature, but only the later two do so without extraneous textures.
March 6, 2006
CHRIS SPEEDS YEAH NO
Squealer SQLR 040
Known for his incisive soloing with prototypical downtown groups lead by the likes of altoist Tim Bernes and pianist Myra Melford, reedist Chris Speed, seems most concerned with lyricism, Balkan inflections and ambience here.
Not a smooth jazz record, the less than 39-minute session could easily be confused for a soft-rock outing by members of a metal band eager to display their chops in a quieter setting. Cumulatively the 10 tracks offer little more than music that could be played for dancing and background during a semi-hip wedding in Manhattans East Village or Brooklyns Park Slope.
Yeah NO includes drummer Jim Black and electric bassist Skuli Sverisson, who along with Speed and guitarist Hilmar Jensson guesting on one track operate in similar, though rockier territory in the drummers AlasNoAxis band. Additional dense harmonies are slathered over most of the tracks by Rob Burgers accordion and/or Jamie Safts mellotron or Wurlitzer electric piano. Remaining member is trumpeter Cuong Vu, who despite membership in Pat Methenys most recent touring combo, manages to do something more with jazz-rock interface on his own CDs.
Safts mellotron noodling is particularly unfortunate, since when its featured, the band leans into King Crimson territory. In fact nearly all of the undulating keyboard textures create similar harmonics, smoothing out the few spiky impulses Vus double-tongued plunger growls or Speeds barnyard squeaks proffer. With the themes nearly indistinguishable from one another, solo work is often reduced to breaks among collective coloration.
Electrified, sluicing bass lines and shuffle beats from the drums are the most common accompaniment. Nadir is reached on a couple of tunes where impudent polyphony from the horns gives way to a steady almost monochromatic line centred around a folkie guitar, picked clawhammer style and sounding as if it was break time at an Eagles concert. Since no acoustic guitarist is listed, no individual blame can be ascribed.
In short, SWELL HENRY is more no than yeah.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. She Has Four Thorns* 2. Last Beginning* 3. Born in the Air*+ 4. Camper Giorno+ 5. Cloud Stopper 6. Flanked^ 7. He Has a Pair of Dice 8. Dead Water* 9. Staircase Genius*# 10.Kip Files$
Personnel: Cuong Vu (trumpet); Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet and Casio); Rob Burger (accordion*); Jamie Saft (mellotron+); Wurlitzer electric piano^); Hilmar Jensson (guitar#); Skuli Sverisson (electric bass); Jim Black (drums); Speak & Spell (program$)
May 30, 2005