Wadada Leo Smith’s Triumphant New Suite

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AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS / SMITH: New Orleans: The National Culture Parks USA 1718. Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park. Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and It Ecosystem, 1872. The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 B.C. Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890. Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill, 1890 / Golden Quintet: Wadada Leo Smith, tpt/dir; Anthony Davis, pn; Ashley Walters, cello; John Lindberg, bs; Pheeroan akLaff, dm. / Cuneiform Records 430/431

Trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, who turns 75 on December 18 of this year, has been in the forefront of avant-garde jazz for decades, though he began his career—as did the brilliant Clifford Brown—by playing R&B. His real breakthrough came in 1971 when he formed the New Dalta Ahkri band with Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake and the equally brilliant Henry Threadgill, and founded his own record label, Kabell. It was also during the 1970s that Smith studied ethnomusicology at Weslyan University, but only after he became a Rastafarian that he began using the first name of Wadada. He also began using graphic notation system, which he dubbed Ankhrasmation, in 1970.

Thus we obviously have here a musician-composer who operates outside the mainstream of American culture, even outside the jazz mainstream. This project is a follow-up and expansion on his 2014 Great Lakes Suites (Tum Records CD 041-2), in which he reunited with Threadgill in a quartet including John Lindberg on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Here he introduces his “Golden Quartet,” a group which, interestingly, includes a cellist, Ashley Watkins, along with piano, bass, drums and Smith on trumpet. This, I’ve learned, is an expansion of his previous Golden Quartet with pianist Vijay Iyer, who has since gone on to greater fame on his own, bassist Lindberg and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. What really fascinates me is that he was able to score these 93 minutes of music in just 28 pages. The liner notes tell us that this music “is an elegant and interrogatory blend of thorough-composed, fully improvised, and Ankhrasmation-guided approaches that allow for expressive freedom while maintaining a cohesive intellectual viewpoint.” The musicians thus “construct a dazzling, ever-evolving monument of invention from blocks of melodic, sonic and rhythmic ideas.”

Interestingly, Smith hasn’t visited many of the parks he creates images of in this score, but rather used historical research to inspire his musical portraits. He also took inventive liberties with the definition of a national park. For instance, New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA argues that this city should be considered such a landmark due to its cultural and historical contributions to America, focusing on the birth of jazz and specifically Buddy Bolden, whose music we know almost nothing about. It’s a bold risk but one that Smith was willing to take. Similarly, Smith invents another “national park” from the writings of musicologist and author Eileen Jackson Southern, with whose work I was totally unfamiliar. He also creates another “national park” out of the Mississippi River, which he calls “a memorial site which was used as a dumping place for black bodies by hostile forces in Mississippi.” I’m not sure I fully agree with this expansion and redefintion of what a national park is. And as long as Smith is politicizing the term national park, why not one on Wounded Knee? When one politicizes an art form, whatever it is, the music thus becomes a symbol for your viewpoint, and you cannot just decide arbitrarily what is or isn’t a”national park” just because it’s your record.

Yet taking the music on its own merits, without the politics, it is a fascinating suite. The music is sparse, as is typical for Smith, but the addition of a cello with its ability to spin long, unbroken lines adds a richness and extra dimension to the music’s effect. What I found interesting was that the music was, for all its avant-garde properties, essentially tonal in character, and at least in the opening piece (New Orleans) owed as much to Miles Davis as anyone else. Unlike his colleague Threadgill’s music, which emerges in small and medium-sized blocks of notes (I’ve described it in this article as a musical mosaic), Smith’s scores very definitely have a melodic flow, and it is within this flow that all the little pieces fall info place. Think of it as watching a river flow lazily by as you notice certain objects bobbing up to and down from the surface. It has that kind of effect on the listener.

Despite the essentially tonal nature of the music and the legato quality of the cello, I found it interesting that pianist Davis took a more angular approach, playing against the flow in spiky double-time flurries of notes rather than laying out rich, full chords. And then there is the sheer length of these pieces, the first lasting over 20 minutes and The Mississippi River over a half hour. Smith evidently enjoys taking his time—and the musicians’-time—to explore each topic in musical depth. There’s a lot of “space” in these pieces, moments of repose and silence that manage to bind the sections together. Another way of looking at them is like a series of conversations where, whenever there is a lull, someone in the room manages to come up with another topic or another viewpoint of a previous topic to keep the chat flowing. Another thing that struck me as I listened is how the music only occasionally sounded like jazz in any traditional sense, even less so than the avant-garde jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago or the World Saxophone Quartet. Improvisatory, yes, most definitely; most of this is improvised into being. Yet if he omitted the drums (which he does in the second piece, Eileen Jackson Southern), I’d have a hard time defining this music as jazz. It is spacey, moody, extremely creative and emotionally moving, but to my ears more closely related to modern classical music than modern jazz. And I say that with a tremendous degree of respect for these scores. They are not merely fascinating, but brilliant.

Due to the slow-moving nature of Smith’s music and its use of space, it is not an easy record to listen to, though I’m certain that a large number of people who have no real ear for what is going on will use it as background music for reading or a party. There is always the temptation to use soft, quiet music as a form of ambience, but this would be a gross insult to Smith. Even in so small a moment as the held trumpet note, under which the cello suddenly changes key and the bass and piano add a few sprinkles in Eileen Jackson Southern, is wont to pass by an inattentive listener without incident, though it is actually a pivotal moment in time and in this piece. Indeed, since I listened to the recording without being able to see where I was on the CD, it was difficult to tell where one piece ended and the next started. This is a tribute to Smith’s musical imagination and his ability to create musical forms that intertwine and are similar in motivic ideas without being identical.

As the album progressed, in fact, I found myself thinking much more of the music and its ebb and flow than of any association with a national park, real or imagined. In Yellowstone, for instance, I did not and could not really visualize anything about the park as I listened to Davis’ ongoing sprinkle of notes against the gentle rocking rhythm of cello and bass and the sprinkle of cymbals, eventually moving into an a cappella bass solo of extraordinary lyricism (and, again, an almost classical sense of structure). And yet, this music is evocative—of states of mind, not geysers or canyons.

In short, America’s National Parks is a stunning musical achievement. Smith’s music takes you on a tour, so to speak, of the canyons of your mind. Even when the mood itself changes, as it most certainly does on the dark-hued Mississippi River portion of the suite with its roiling, fast-paced section, Smith’s musical vision remains compelling in its minimal but striking use of the smallest gestures to take your mind on a trip you didn’t even know you wanted to take.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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