Smith’s Superb “Chicago Symphonies”

Cover_WLS_Great Lakes Quartet_The_Chicago_Symphonies

2021SMITH: Symphonies: No. 1, Gold; No. 2, Diamond; No. 3, Pearl / Wadada Leo Smith, tpt/fl-hn; Henry Threadgill, a-sax/fl/bs-fl; John Lindberg, bs; Jack De Johnette, dm / Symphony No. 4, Sapphire / Jonathon Haffner, a-sax/sop-sax repl. Threadgill / TUM Box 004

This 4-CD set, scheduled for release on November 21, contains jazz trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s “symphonies” for a jazz quartet. In the notes, he states that he picked up the idea from the late Don Cherry’s symphony for jazz sextet, but since even a sextet provides more texture than a quartet, I was somewhat skeptical as to how well he would succeed. These works are played by Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet, so named because they formed as a group in 2014 to record Smith’s musical tribute to the great lakes of America.

Smith clearly has some idea of classical form; the very opening of the first symphony tells you as much, as he uses his trumpet and Henry Threadgill’s alto sax to create a theme statement over Jack De Johnette’s drums, and when Threadgill picks up the theme and develops it, he does so in an accepted classical manner as Smith, now with a mute in his horn, plays counter-figures. All of this is well and good, but to be honest I’d like to hear this same music played with a richer texture—more brass and reeds and yes, even a handful of strings. When the music is this interesting and you call your work a symphony, you really do want to hear it expanded tonally. It’s not that what is presented here on the record is insufficient musically, because it isn’t, but it is insufficient in terms of texture. I would compare this to those reductions for piano quartet or small chamber group of established classical symphonies. I know that some people like them, but I don’t. I long to hear a richer, fuller sound such as that achieved by Ornette Coleman in his Skies of America symphony for orchestra and jazz combo.

Yet as I say, there is no mistaking the quality of this music. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this album may not sell as well to pure jazz fans as to those who really enjoy jazz-classical fusion pieces, what Charles Mingus called “jazzical moods.” And the comparison with Mingus is a very valid one, particularly if you’ve ever heard his Revelations, a single jazz symphony movement written for the Brandeis University “Third Stream” concert of 1957 organized by Gunther Schuller. I always wished that Mingus had completed this jazz symphony and not just left it at one movement, but he was a pragmatist. If he couldn’t get any more of it performed by the forces he wrote it for, why bother?

One reason why Smith’s music works so well, aside from his understanding of classical form, is that all four musicians involved in this project are virtuosi who can bring much more out of their instruments than the average jazz player. I’ve written a blog post honoring Henry Threadgill, who I consider to be a unique musical genius, and his participation in three of these four symphonies (I’m not sure why he couldn’t have done the fourth) is a primary reason as to why they work so well, but I was particularly pleased with the way Jack De Johnette played drums here (better than on Smith’s Billie Holiday tribute album) and especially the inventive, flexible and highly rhythmic playing of bassist John Lindberg, the only name in this quartet I was not previously familiar with. Indeed, once he gets rolling, I’d say that Lindberg is often the glue that holds the whole structure together, providing an interesting and continually morphing “ground bass” underneath all the complex lines and improvisation going on above him.

But of course we must also give praise to Smith, whose solo in the second movement of the first symphony is simply breathtaking, a nearly flawless combination of spontaneous improvisation built around the basic structure that he created. In each movement, too, Smith uses long pauses at those moments when he wishes to change the musical direction. These are effective but, again, I think they’d be even more effective if Smith scored them for roughly two dozen musicians, and I encourage him to at least think about it. Sadly, no one plays Skies of America any more now that Coleman is gone, but the more I listened to Smith’s music here the more convinced I was that these are not only musically interesting works but, in a way, more appealing to the average listener. They do not contain that continual, incessant atonal “grinding” sound that Coleman wrote for his strings; on the contrary, there are many passages in the first symphony that are quite tonal and even accessible without resorting to a cheap pandering of “lovely tunes that people can hum.” It is music that reaches out to an audience but does not condescend to popular tastes.

Moreover, as I continued listening, I detected themes and motifs that were carried over and changed through development and morphing to other movements, creating a unified piece that one could follow despite the differences. Smith’s verbal descriptions of each symphony in the liner notes are interesting, and show what was probably his state of mind when writing them, but the great thing is that the music can be appreciated and enjoyed without the verbal commentary, just as Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Mahler’s Sixth can be enjoyed without necessarily getting too deep into the political implications that inspired them. The fascinating, complex, yet (in its own way) majestic trumpet solo that opens the fourth movement of the first symphony is clearly great music, and any classical snob who refuses to admit that just because it’s played by a jazz musician is, in my view, wholly oblivious to what great music really is, and means. Later in the same movement, Threadgill and Lindberg indulge in a breathtaking and complex duo, and when Smith re-enters it is by playing majestic, long-held notes for a while before giving us some complex bop licks with a few buzzes and growls mixed in.

The second symphony opens with Threadgill on flute, playing with bass and drums. This music is in a more bitonal vein than the first, with far more complex rhythm. De Johnette is thus far busier here on drums, yet for the most part he follows the musical patterns laid down in the score. Smith’s solo turn is full of surprises, both rhythmic and harmonic, and Threadgill is also superb on alto. In form, I would say that this is closer to jazz than to classical, yet there still is form and substance, and this is even more evident in the slower second movement. Although Lindberg plays a less prominent role here, he does have an excellent bass solo later on in this movement after the pause. The third movement also starts slowly but picks up momentum in the middle when Smith doubles the tempo, then quadruples it in his own solo. In this work, it seemed to me that the music was more continuous in structure, with each movement growing out of the one previous. There’s also some nice interplay between the four musicians near the mid-point of this third movement, although I did think the extended drum solo. though a good one, didn’t really add much to the composition.

The fourth and last movement opens quixotically, with Smith playing what seem at first like random figures on the trumpet, but this eventually coalesces into a sort of thematic material, albeit somewhat more fragmented than in the previous movements.

The opening of the third symphony sounds for all the world like the old Ornette Coleman Quartet although this movement is dedicated to Anthony Braxton. There’s a lot going on here, and by the 2:15 mark, when de Johnette begins playing some fascinating figures on the bass drum, the music sounds for all the world like something more African than American. Whether consciously or not, Threadgill tosses in a brief quote from Limehouse Blues in his solo, but Smith seems to be soaring in a world entirely his own. Later on, there’s another extended drum solo, followed after a brief pause by Threadgill on alto flute playing against Lindberg’s bowed bass, with moments of a cappella flute mixed in. After a pause, the full quartet rides it out at a faster tempo. Fascinating music. and the second movement, slower and more structured, is equally outstanding. The third movement opens with solo bowed bass, with cymbals and sticks playing the rims of the drums coming in behind it for color. Later on, both trumpet and alto sax come in, individually and then together, while the bass and drums continue their dialogue. This portion of the symphony, however, is much more jazz and thus somewhat less structured, but the fourth movement returns to a tighter form. In the fourth movement, what may sound to the ear as simply good improvisation by the two rhythm instruments actually coalesces into a coherent musical statement, whereas in the fifth we return to Braxton-Coleman-style free jazz, or so it seems, as I’m sure that Smith had at least some of this written out beforehand.

As mentioned earlier, I don’t know why Threadgill was unavailable for the fourth symphony, dedicated to presidents and their vision for America, but Jonathon Haffner plays very well in his own right. The first movement opens with the drums playing an almost military-style beat; since this is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, it may well represent the aftermath of the Civil War. Over the busy percussion, Smith and Haffner confine themselves to long-held note statements which fill out the first movement. In the second, the bass is as busy as the drums, yet when the trumpet and alto sax enter they are again playing long-held notes. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but the music in this piece, though very good jazz, doesn’t sound as strictly organized as in the first three works, though when Smith and Haffner return again they are playing a variation on their original theme. Haffner.s solo in the second movement shows a harder-edged sound and an adherence to a stricter rhythm  than Threadgill, whose mastery of fluid rhythms contributed so much to the first three symphonies.

The mood and emotion change to a slower pace and sparser, more terse statements in the third movement, although de Johnette’s drums play at double tempo from the outset. There’s a remarkable passage in this movement, around the 4:48 mark, where Smith holds one note and changes the color of the tone on it, not once but twice. In the fourth movement, the rhythm section plays what sounds like an extended meter, possibly 13/8 (something like that…there’s an extra beat to each continuous musical cell), but although the music is good, by this time it seems to be repeating things from the previous movements and seemed to me less inspired than merely crafted. It’s still nice to listen to, but somehow the creative edge seems missing to me. In short, the music is good but not quite great, although Smith and his quartet keep the flow going. Although Haffner contributes a superb solo in the fourth movement, I still think they missed not having Threadgill on this one.

Notwithstanding, the musical complexity and emotional power of most of this music is so overwhelming that I highly recommend that you do NOT play these discs in quick succession. Take some time after each symphony to allow what you’ve heard to sink in before moving on to the next one. I will even go out on a limb here and say that, in their own way, these pieces are the modern-day equivalent of what Maher did at the turn of the 20th century, both an advance on and a summation of the symphony form as it existed in his time, imbued with an emotional passion that almost bordered on frenzy. I can’t even describe to you the intense feelings I experienced when listening to this music; the closest I can come is to say that they were real feelings of ecstasy. I was transported to another level of existence just by hearing them.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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