Review: Wadada Leo Smith

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith two-day residency
(Café Oto, 24-25 July 2010. Day 1 with Mark Sanders, John Coxon and John Edwards. Day 2 with Pat Thomas, Tony Marsh, Lol Coxhill and Steve Noble. Review and pencil drawing by Geoff Winston.)

“Wadada Leo Smith … ‘Leo Smith’ was ’90’s … 1890’s.” Wadada corrected the introduction lightly, but firmly. He also achieves that balance between lightness and resoluteness in his music. His intense delivery is never overbearing, but is measured and challenging. His technical fluency is deceptive, a veil for his skill in leading and bringing out the best from his co-musicians. His range and command elude easy categorisation.

Each of his two nights at Cafe Oto opened with a set of absorbing extended duets – on the first with the graceful percussionist, Mark Sanders, and on the second with Pat Thomas, effervescent on keyboards and electronics.

In both duets the piercing trumpet tones were leavened with glockenspiel-like sounds from Wadada’s thumb piano, also complementing his more withdrawn delivery when using the mute. His body expression said much about the music – concentrated and focussed – he’d alternate between being bent over with trumpet facing the floor, dreadlocks obscuring his face, then upright, facing the room. “Sometimes the trumpet smokes … I mean real smoke!”, and it did, as he’d run out flowing streams of sound, the perspiration on his face pointing to the intensity of his concentration.

In his third number with Pat Thomas there were two spells of extended silence imposed by Wadada, bringing to mind his theory of Rhythm Units – ‘A single sound has a mate, and that mate is a silent sound’ – in this instance it included the muffled reverberations from a nearby sound system, which he used, Cage-like, to become part of that silence.

Mark Sanders‘s deft, exploratory drum work was contemplative and melodic. He and Wadada played balance and counterbalance beautifully.

The duets were followed by formidable ensemble sets – John Edwards (bass) and John Coxon (guitar) joining Sanders and Wadada on the first night; then twin drum kits – Tony Marsh and Steve Noble – joining Lol Coxhill (soprano sax), up-front with Wadada, and Thomas on the second.

Coxon brought an extra edge to the mix with his searing guitar mimicking the trumpet’s staccato at one point, and Edwards’ disciplined. energetic delivery giving a dynamic backbone to the quartet.

Wadada summed it up: :”Duets are hard, but playing with five is even harder!”

There were memorable moments in the second set of night two. The unison and mastery of the drum duo was impressive. Sounding as one instrument, with Marsh standing over an array of timpani to the centre left, and Noble seated at his kit far right, they made it all look effortless. Coxhill and Wadada played a notable duet towards the end of the night, lyrical and constrained, their tones almost interchangeable.

Wadada has a penchant for unexpected juxtapositions. “It’s just like deep sea diving – if you get out alive … be happy!”

Listeners may get the chance to plunge into these sessions again – both nights were being recorded.

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