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Wadada Leo Smith
Ten Freedom Summers
Cuneiform Records RUNE 350/351/352/353
By Ken Waxman
Striving to musically capture defining moments in African-American history, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has written 19 compositions to mostly reflect events of the Civil Rights era from 1954-1964; the Ten Freedom Summers of the title. In a gestation period that began in 1977 and consumed most of his time during a three-year stretch before this four-CD set was recorded in late 2011, Smith broadened his focus back to the Dred Scott case and forward to September 11th. Interpreted by the jazz-sophisticated members of his Golden Quartet/Quintet (GQ) plus the Southwest Chamber Music (SCM) group, 70-year-old Smith calls the program, “one of my life’s defining works”. Personal rather than pedantic, the compositions celebrate defining moments. Although there are related motifs among them, linkage is more psychological than sonic. Each composition is designed to stand on its own.
Smith has stated that Ten Freedom Summers was inspired by August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle which similarly deals with the 20th Century Black experience; plus Civil Rights-era jazz compositions such as saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and drummer Max Roach’s LP-length We Insist: Freedom Now!” suite. But as a theorist, educator, AACM member and improviser whose associates have ranged from multi-reedist Anthony Braxton to guitarist Henry Kaiser, the trumpeter created the compositions here after his own fashion. Very few are programmatic on their own, for instance.
The closest would probably be “Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954”. With stentorian beat promulgated by the military styled pacing of drummers Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan akLaff, the inevitability of the demands for equal education for all Americans is underlined. Added to this pulse are scrubbed bass lines, tremolo piano chording from Anthony Davis and the composer’s brassy grace notes. Piano key clips and R&B-styled percussion backbeats reminiscent of Julius Hemphill’s “The Hard Blues” reinforce the theme, which reaches its climax with a celebratory sequence that is carefully harmonized as it heralds the militancy of the following decade.
A valuable addition to Smith’s team is pianist Davis. Someone whose pedigree includes improvising with the likes of trombonist George Lewis, he also composes large-scale notated works. With impeccable keyboard finesse Davis negotiates between the two ensembles, minimizing any fissure that could arise in the mixture of styles. For instance on “Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957”, it’s Davis’ easy-going arpeggios which link Larry Kaplan’s recital-like flute passages and the SCM’s gentle string swells with the GQ’s freer voicing that encompasses Smith’s growling trumpet, bassist John Lindberg’s paced walking and drummer Ibarra’s pops and ruffs. During a finale of echoing tones, Smith’s slurred grace notes finally cement both factions.
Although secondary to Smith’s theme, many of Ten Freedom Summers’ compositions provide new validity for Third Stream creation. The most notable instance is “Lyndon B Johnson's Great Society and The Civil Rights Act of 1964”, where backed by the SCM, solos are divided between Smith and SCM violinist Shalini Vijayan. Over the course of 24 minutes, sensitized glissandi on the violinist’s part are not only are conveyed with an exquisite tone, but during the finale variations are stretched tautly without losing their warmth. Again encouraged by Davis’ skill in outputting both formalist and jazz-pulsed licks, the muted or plunger trumpet solos express textures that are as much “legit” as they are so-called jazzy. While Smith’s sequences are played in a congruent fashion rather than commenting upon or complementing violin passages, his instant theme-reshaping at times prevents Vijayan’s variations from moving too far out of sync. Parallel harmonies during crescendos ensure the narrative is never severed.
What’s more the underlying strength of Smith’s compositions is such that even when the SCM plays on its own, the focus isn’t lost in semi-classical prettiness. Interpreting “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years Journey For Liberty and Justice”, the dirge-like tune Smith initially composed for violinist Leroy Jenkins, the SCM proves itself capable of mood-appropriate interpretations. Aided by Davis’ key fanning, the Jeff von der Schmidt-conducted nonet sustains the melancholy mood with pizzicato lines divided contrapuntally among harpist Alison Bjorkedal, violinists Vijayan and Lorenz Gamma plus violist Jan Karlin. Underneath the undulating strings, percussionist Lynn Vartan provides a thunder clap-like continuum of kettle drums resonations plus marimba bar hammering,
Outsized in more than bulk, this four-CD set manages to simultaneously commemorate major achievements in American race relations, legitimize Third Stream fusion and confirm Smith’s role as a major composer.
Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. Dred Scott: 1857 2. Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahadah 3. Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless* 4. Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954 5. John F Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960 Disc 2: 6. Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days+ 7. Black Church 8. Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, an Act of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964 9. Lyndon B Johnson's Great Society and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Disc 3: 10. The Freedom Riders Ride* 11. Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years Journey For Liberty and Justice 12. The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial For All Times* 13. Buzzsaw: The Myth of the Free Press+ 14. Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957* Disc 4: 15. America, Parts 1, 2 & 3+ 16. September 11th, 2001: A Memorial 17. Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democracy Party, 1964 18. Democracy 19. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy*
Personnel: The Golden Quartet/Quintet: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet and flugelhorn; Anthony Davis: piano; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan akLaff+ and/or Susie Ibarra*: drums and Southwest Chamber Music: Jeff von der Schmidt: conductor; Jim Foschia: clarinet; Larry Kaplan: flute; Shalini Vijayan and Lorenz Gamma: violin; Jan Karlin: viola; Peter Jacobson: cello; Alison Bjorkedal: harp; Tom Peters: bass; Lynn Vartan: percussion
--For The New York City Jazz Record May 2013
May 8, 2013
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.
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)
May 26, 2012
David Murray/Chico Freeman
ITM Archives 920009
Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club
Jazzwerkstatt JW 073
By Ken Waxman
Over the course of his career saxophonist David Murray has blown hot, cold, but mostly cool. Despite making hundreds of records, few are first class, although most reach a level of high competence. Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club – initially released in 1977 on India Navigation – is one of his best early discs, however. Meanwhile With Özay, from the 1990s, is a top-flight vocal CD, where despite the billing, Murray, Chico Freeman and other first-call jazzers provide sympathetic accompaniment to singer Özay.
A Turk living in Berlin, Özay Fecht is an accomplished actress, screenwriter and director, who also recorded jazz with heavyweights like saxophonist Steve Lacy and Jim Pepper. So with Kirk Lightsey and D.D. Jackson splitting the piano duties, bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff in the rhythm section and a guest shot by violinist Billy Bang, this CD is no vanity project by an actress pretending to be Lady Day.
Featuring only a couple of standards, the rest of the material includes sophisticated songs by the likes of pianist Dave Burrell and vocalist Bob Dorough plus a couple of numbers in Turkish. One features her scatting in double counterpoint with Bang’s sawing fiddle; another has lyrics by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. Impressively though, Fecht’s English delivery is either lyric soprano bubbly or husky as if channelling Marlene Dietrich.
Murray is in particularly fine form accompanying the later, as with Ben Websterish obbligatos on “Antiquated Love”. Bringing a gritty parlando to “Without Rhyme Or Reason” Fecht’s melismatic cries are matched by Murray’s squeaks and side slipping as well as Lightsey’s metronomic comping. Outstanding throughout, Lightsey steers a middle course between both saxophonists’ bar-busting improvisations and the tonal qualities needed to keep the tracks on an even keel.
More than 17 years earlier, Murray and company weren’t particularly interested in lyricism. But listening to the CD, it’s telling that in retrospect these Young Turks, though identified as avant gardists, were as committed to extending the jazz tradition as Özay and accompanists were in 1994.
In fact, the saxophonist’s “Bechet’s Bounce” is probably the most characteristic composition. The performance could fool any Dixielander into thinking it was Classic Jazz. Here ex-Air member Fred Hopkins slaps his bass à la Pops Foster; drummer Phil Wilson’s backbeat channel’s Zutty Singleton; and Lester Bowie’s open-horned trumpet lead is as jungle-like as anything recorded by Cootie Williams. Around Bowie’s tremolo flourishes and whinnying, Murray weaves high-pitched soprano saxophone vibrations. Performed in broken octaves, the theme is recapped before the turnaround, while the coda involves an old-time rim shot.
Also notable is “For Walter Norris”, an ode to the pianist who was on Ornette Coleman’s first LP. Composed by Butch Morris and related to “Lonely Woman”, the piece evolves as the closely pitched horns modulate atop Hopkins’ bowed bass line. Bowie’s hand-muted, mid-point solo drips with tenderness until the mood is breached by Murray’s rough-hewn split tones. This jagged-smooth dichotomy is maintained throughout with even Bowie’s smears and growls staying connective. Murray’s agitato squeals may be discursive, but they’re moderated by Hopkins’ strums and Wilson’s drags.
One certified classic, and a little-known jazz vocal gem, both CDs are worth investigating.
-- Ken Waxman
Tracks: Live: Nevada’s Theme; Bechet’s Bounce; Obe; Let the Music Take You; For Walter Norris; Santa Barbara & Crenshaw Follies
Personnel: Live: Lester Bowie: trumpet; David Murray: soprano and tenor saxophones; Fred Hopkins: bass; Phillip Wilson: drums
Tracks: Özay: Antiquated Love^!; Ancient Dancer+; Intuitively^!; En Güzel Deniz; Without Rhyme Or Reason^!; I See Your Face Before Me; I Thought About You (For Tom)+; Peaceful Heart/Gentle Spirit+; Istanblue*!
Personnel: Özay: David Murray^ or Chico Freeman+: tenor saxophone; Billy Bang: violin*Kirk Lightsey! or D.D. Jackson+: piano; Calvin Jones: bass; Pheeroan AkLaff: drums; Özay: vocals
-- For All About Jazz New York January 2011
January 8, 2011
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
Oliver Lake Trio
Prime “what if” material this recording captures the perfect balance between improvisation and interpretation of saxophonist Oliver Lake’s compositions attained by his band at the 1979 Willisau Jazz Festival. The unanswered question is what other impressive sounds might have been created if the trio’s singularly inventive guitarist hadn’t subsequently abandoned improvised music.
Born with the inconvenient name of Michael (Gregory) Jackson, the six tracks show how the guitarist had adopted slurred fingering and distorted bowing and tunings to complement the serpentine shrieks and squeals that Lake expelled from his tenor and soprano saxophones. Pheeroan akLaff, a subtle drummer who prefers rumbles, tambourine rattles and bounces to a crunching backbeat, fills out the band.
Although Jackson’s playing manages to meld the flanging and signal splitting of energy players like Sonny Sharrock with the clean, legato picking of traditionalists such as Jim Hall, it apparently wasn’t enough. He was spectacularly unsuccessful recording stripped-down aggressive rock on his own, even as his vocalist namesake was redefining, rock and R&B with prettified dance arrangements. Guitarist Jackson subsequently left the music business.
On this CD however, he and Lake are perfectly attuned to one another. Enlivening his cascading trills with glossolalia, altissimo squeaks, tongue slaps and flutter-tonguing, the saxophonist pours out variations upon variations of the theme. Combining finger-picking, frailing and staccato fills, Jackson matches the reedist sound-for-sound. As attuned to one another as identical twins, the two mirror each other’s lines, accompany one another and switch parts without interrupting the idea flow. Yet the resulting improvisations are still divergent enough that neither is copying or following the other.
Imagine what could have been if the trio had remained intact.
In MusicWorks Issue #101
July 2, 2008