Wadada Leo Smith’s Love Sonnet for Lady Day


SMITH: Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet. The A.D. Opera: A Long Vision with Imagination, Creativity and Fire, a dance opera (for Anthony Davis). IYER: Deep Time No. 1. DE JOHNETTE: Song for World Forgiveness. SMITH-DE JOHNETTE-IYER: Rocket / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt; Vijay Iyer, pno/celeste/org; Jack De Johnette, dm / TUM Records CD 060

This recording, made in 2016 but just now being released, is described by Smith in the booklet as a “dream project to work on with Jack and Vijay where the idea of composition and instrumentation would play a vital part in how the music sounded.” This makes a great deal of sense as one listens to the music herein. Although the first and third pieces in the album (both written by Smith) are dedicated to Billie Holiday, these are probably metaphorical tributes as there is nothing in the music that really relates to Holiday or any of the music she sang. (Billie stuck to the relatively simple pop songs of her day, Strange Fruit excepted; it was her deeply penetrating interpretation of lyrics that made her art special. She had a hard time singing anything that was musically outré; when Charles Mingus wrote Eclipse for her in the early 1950s, she was flattered but never performed it because she couldn’t hear the changes.)

Thus I take this recording to be more of a musical experiment in sound and texture, as Smith so clearly puts it, with perhaps a mental image of what Billie Holiday stood for in the background. The opening Love Sonnet consists mostly of long held notes played by Smith, with de Johnette being quite busy on the drums and Iyer’s piano fills being somewhere in between. It’s truly experimental music in the sense that some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The goal was to combine their sonorities with their contrasting views of rhythm and the use of space. As a result, it sounds much more like three excellent musicians playing their own thing than of a trio in the conventional sense of the word trying to fuse their ideas together.

As I pointed out in my review of the album that Iyer made with avant-garde tenor saxist Ivo Perelman, when your goal is to just spontaneously create music and just play whatever comes into your head without a sense of structure, what results isn’t always music that the mind can follow because there’s nothing for the mind to hold on to. Smith’s trumpet figures, taken by themselves, have a certain amount of structure to them, as do some of Iyer’s piano figures, but when put together and adding de Johnette’s drums, it’s really just sound and not music in the strict sense of the word.

Smith and Iyer seem to be more in accordance with one another on the latter’s piece Deep Time No. 1, but the continuous pre-recorded track of Iyer talking (it sounded like gibberish to me because it’s extremely difficult to make out words, but I’m told that it’s one of Malcolm X’s speeches, “By Any Means Necessary”) interferes more than it helps bind the music together. Once again, de Johnette just plays whatever he wants to, disregarding what Smith and Iyer are creating.

Oddly enough, things coalesce much better in Smith’s 18-minute “dance opera” for Anthony Davis, in part because de Johnette finally relaxes his uptempo playing to fit into the same groove that Smith and Iyer are in. True, he increases the tempo of his playing when the other two do as well, but this, too makes for a more homogenous improvisation than either of the two preceding pieces. Indeed, this piece is a gem of free improvisation; everything works well in it and makes some musical sense, held together by Iyer’s ingenious chord patterns. In the middle of the piece, Iyer switches to the celesta with excellent results as the tempo and phrasing both relax.

In the Song for World Forgiveness (not sure what they’re forgiving), we reach a sort of compromise between the (slightly) organized chaos of the first two tracks and the more structured improvisation in the third, Again, this works well largely due to Iyer’s contribution; by now he seems fully conversant with what Smith is doing (still playing mostly in long-held notes, but occasionally in bursts of short note flurries) and has figured out a way to support him harmonically; there are some nice changes that he plays that help quite a bit. De Johnette, on the other hand, seems to only occasionally be in the same groove, although when he does play opposing rhythms he seems more cognizant of what the other two are doing.

Interestingly, the last piece on the album, a three-way collaboration titled Rocket, fares the best of all. The trio opens with a sort of funky 4 with de Johnette playing backbeats, which he is very good at, with Iyer now switching to Hammond organ and Smith playing much more animated figures on trumpet. Even Smith’s occasionally pained cries on his instrument seem to fit into the ongoing progression of sound.

In whole, then, one hears this album as an experiment that often worked but occasionally didn’t, the first two tracks being the weakest of the five. Such is the case with much free jazz, and one has to take what one gets, but there is clearly enough here that works so that I recommend this CD to you.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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