As the Chicago jazz great turns 80, two expansive new box sets honor his artistry
Wadada Leo Smith certainly qualifies as an elder statesman of Free Jazz.
He began his career as part of the first generation of musicians in the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization that has had a profound impact on Avant-Garde for decades and whose membership includes Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton among countless others. As both a performer and composer, Smith has been tireless and prolific, his music proving to be integral to the Free Jazz tradition.
In honor of Wadada Leo Smith’s 80th birthday, TUM Records are releasing two box sets that showcase his incredible artistry and instrumental prowess. The first set contains three discs worth of solo performances titled simply Trumpet while the second three-disc box set which finds him collaborating with the incomparable voices of Milford Graves and Bill Laswell.
Trumpet, perhaps more than any other recordings, illustrates what sets Wadada Leo Smith apart from his other Avant-Garde counterparts. While he is more than capable of blowing with the best of them, Smith possesses an inherent musicality no matter how far afield he may roam on a technical level. Smith never lets go of the idea of the phrase with every string of notes possessing its own melodic logic. He often sounds like he’s playing a tune, just one that the rest of us has never heard before.
In the moments that he does decide to push further out, such as “Sonic Night-Night Colors (For Reggie Workman)” which opens the third disc, Smith’s playing never becomes overly abstract. His freer playing comes across as dramatic rather than cacophonous. He seems to play in a state of meditation on Trumpet , with every phrase being internally contemplated before finding its way out into the world. Whatever rules he is or isn’t following, there’s a consistent internal logic to this music.
Trumpet was recorded over the course of a week at St. Mary’s Church in Pohja, Finland. The beautiful acoustics of this structure also play an important role in these recordings. Smith is performing solo here, but somehow the church sounds just as important as any accompanist. There’s a resonance present here that adds to the implied spirituality often present in the music. This invites another mode of listening to Trumpet . Yes, this can be heard as a Free Jazz recording, but one may almost approach this as an Ambient record, despite the presence of the instrument’s distinct melodic lines. One can become lost in the sonic environment and allow the sense of serenity to wash over themselves. Trumpet lends itself equally to contemplation and surrender.
Despite being released in honor of Smith’s birthday, Sacred Ceremonies is dedicated to the memory of Milford Graves who performs on the first disc with Smith, and on the second disc with both Smith and Laswell. Wadada Leo Smith’s character leads these recordings overall, but it is fascinating to hear the ways he adjusts to the context created by those around him.
The first disc in the set features Wadada Leo Smith and Milford Graves together. Both players share a measured approach to their craft. Graves is nimble on percussion and there is nothing in his approach that hints towards playing a drum set in a conventional manner. Instead, his approach hints towards the influence of any number of hand drumming traditions. Throughout the recording though, a certain cymbal seems to appear in the background of every piece, providing a constant pulse.
Smith constructs intriguing melodic lines over the bed of percussion. His playing is controlled and somewhat sparse. He might not be playing changes in the conventional sense, but his improvisations still make the material feel like songs rather than Free Jazz blowing pieces.
Together, Graves and Smith construct a spectral sound. Songs like “Baby Dodds in Congo Square” and “Celebration Rhythms” sound like ghostly reverberations of the New Orleans of old. “The Poet-Play Ebony, Play Ivory (Dedicated to Henry Dumas)” pays homage to the long-deceased writer Henry Dumas, once again lending weight to the phantasmal feel the disc. Milford Graves’s death only adds weight to the reverential feel of the music.
Disc two finds Smith in duet with Bill Laswell. Laswell is perhaps best known for his production work, especially in the fields of Dub and Funk, but he has always kept one foot firmly planted in the Downtown scene, playing bass in any number of Free Jazz and Avant-Garde contexts. His tone on the bass guitar is idiosyncratic, the instrument often awash in electronic effects, particularly chorus and delay. When paired with Smith, they create a warm sonic bath. The sound is almost cinematic. If the first disc evoked the ghosts of the past, this recording conjures the ghosts of the future. These moody pieces wouldn’t be out of place in the quieter moments of the Blade Runner soundtrack.
The third disc places the performers together as a trio, and once again a completely new sound world results. While these pieces still possess a great deal of atmosphere, the sound is still more immediate. These don’t sound like ghostly recollections of anything past, nor like a set piece from a film. Instead, this sounds like three players in the same room together. If there is a slight nod towards anything, it would be Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, but the influence is kept at a distance. This recording has a character all its own.
For those familiar with Laswell’s work for the Axiom label, they will know he often creates a unique sonic environment all his own which seems to at least somewhat obscure the players he brings in to collaborate with him. Their moments here where you can hear his aesthetic peeking through, but Graves and Smith can not be subsumed by Laswell’s style. Instead, the three-way alchemy is as fascinating and unique as it is egalitarian.
Wadada Leo Smith is a legendary figure in Free Jazz, but his importance is not relegated to the past. Both Trumpet and Sacred Ceremonies illustrate that he is an incredibly powerful and relevant contemporary voice. Trumpet matches freedom with melodicism, and gives us a recording that can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways while Sacred Ceremonies amplifies Smith’s unique voice by matching him with two other towering figures. Both sets prove vital for entirely different ways and are not to be missed.
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