Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo Trumpet Recital

what a performanceTRUMPET / SMITH: Albert Ayler. Rashomon, Pts. 1-5. Howard and Miles – A Photographic Image. Metallic Rainbow (For Steve McCall). Sauna – A Healthy Journey (For Petri). Malik el-Shabazz and the People of the Shahada. Leroy Jenkins Violin Expressions. James Baldwin – No Name in the Street; War. Amina Claudine Myers. Sonic Night – Night Colors (For Reggie Workman). Discourses on the Sufi Path – A Remembrance of Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Parts 1-4. Family – A Contemplation of Love, Parts 1-4. Trumpet / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt / Tum Records 002

On this second set by Wadada Leo Smith, the trumpeter plays a cappella for a little over two hours, broken up onto three CDs. I made mention in reviewing his other release coming out on May 21, Sacred Ceremonies, that he seemed locked into generally regular patterns, particularly in the first disc, but here I found his playing to be more consistently adventurous and thus much more interesting.

As I mentioned in my review of Sacred Ceremonies, Smith has, at age 74 (the recordings were made back in 2016), retained the beautiful tone and full control of his instrument that he had when younger, and that in itself is miraculous, but here he stretches himself out more. I found this remarkable considering that he plays all of this music alone, without musical partners to inspire him, but that is what happens here. I would also add that this is even more stunning when one considers that these pieces were recorded in a small church in Finland, and not even in his home stomping grounds, so to speak.

Smith manages to contrast stark, sparse notes with small runs and flurries masterfully; even the bent or distorted notes have an emotional impact on the listener. Here is a seasoned musical soul communicating with itself, and doing so in a way that would put many a younger trumpeter to shame. I know this is going to be misconstrued, though I hope it is not, but Smith has nearly as much full control of his horn and his ability to translate his musical intentions into sound as did Bunny Berigan back in the 1930s. Granted, the style is different but the results are similar, a translation into sound of anything and everything he hears in his mind. And, like Berigan, there is no “waste” in his playing. Every solo has something to say and does so with strength of conviction.

Some of his most innovative and individual playing comes in the five-part suite based on Akira Kurosawa’s film, Rashomon, which “challenges the viewer’s belief as to what he or she sees in the film. It is a psychological game, where guessing might be used as the basis for information and to use that information to connect the imagery and action to understand the meaning of the film.” Smith’s playing here is among his most daring works, employing a number of buzzes, slurs and occasionally overblown notes to create a potpourri of sounds that seem to have meaning but in an abstract and enigmatic way.

I was particularly pleased, and surprised, to see that Smith included a piece paying tribute to not only Miles Davis but also Howard McGhee (1918-1987), one of the earliest bop trumpeters after Dizzy Gillespie. Although generally forgotten today except by musicians, I fell in love with McGhee’s playing during his early stint with the Kansas City-based orchestra of Andy Kirk, who also mentored the great pianist Mary Lou Williams. Williams, who stayed for several years, not only became famous for her piano stylings but also for her arrangements, and thus almost came to be assumed to be the orchestra’s musical leader and “heart,” much to Kirk’s consternation. McGhee only stayed a year or two, however, before he was off to stardom on his own. To be honest, Smith doesn’t quite capture the haunting softness of Davis’ muted tone—few trumpeters could, or can even today—but he makes an interesting piece out of it.

In the piece dedicated to Malik al-Shabazz, which focused on his contribution to the Civil Rights movement in America, Smith plays in the sparse, spaced-out-note style he exhibited in Sacred Ceremonies; some of it was quite effective, however. Other tributes on CD 2 are to jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, with whom Smith and saxist Anthony Braxton played in the late 1960s, and writer James Baldwin. In the second of these, Smith plays in interesting staccato stabs and lip trills amidst his usual lyricism. There is also a tribute on this disc to pianist-organist Amina Claudine Myers, one of the very few women musicians in the male-dominated AACM.

The last CD opens with more tributes, to bassist Reggie Workman, another Muslim mentor, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, and members of Smith’s family. On the first of these, Smith plays in his sparse-note style that dominated the first CD of Sacred Ceremonies, but on the second he is livelier and much more adventurous; indeed, this is some of his most exciting and original playing on this set. But the finale, titled simply Trumpet, is the most startling of all. Smith plays fast atonal licks using a surprisingly choked tone, sometimes even achieving chords by humming one note while playing another. A real tour-de-force.

This thoughtful and surprisingly inventive session has to be one of Smith’s finest in recent years, a must for his many admirers.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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