Wadada Leo Smith
(Cafe Oto, Monday 9 May 2011; review and drawings* by Geoff Winston)
Wadada was cookin’ at Cafe Oto. Yes, ‘Cookin,’ in the manner of the key Miles Davis album. Early in the first set it became apparent that the intense, lyrical abstracted concoction that was being served up was very likely where Miles would have wanted to go, further and freer into both incremental and panoramic soundscapes.
And this is where Wadada pushed it – first, in four improvised pieces as a quartet – with John Coxon, John Edwards and Phil Wachsmann – marked out by an exploratory sensibility; then, adding Pat Thomas and Mark Sanders, to lead the sextet through a single high energy piece, underscored with a minimalist rhythmic imperative, mixing abstraction with percussive and acoustic accents.
When he played at Oto last summer he let Sanders, Coxon, Edwards and Thomas find their voices with him; this time he built on that experience and led the ensemble with a rock-solid vision and really stretched out.
Wachsmann, in his element, offered a rich repertoire of brushing, juddering, whistling and creaking minor events. Edwards, weighed in with a focused, yet carefully clouded restraint, and Coxon, hovered between fuzzy sound slabs and picked acoustic runs. Coxon used a mbira in the second number to set down a rhythm punctuated by a regular jarring accent, typically minimalist and cyclical and later, when Coxon was playing the underside of his guitar with mallets, Sanders was busy applying a bow to his drum kit.
Against this, Wadada, in white linen jacket, would listen intently then, trumpet facing groundwards, dreadlocks covering his bearded features, applied concentrated swerving bursts of shimmering prose which could expand into huge spaces, piercing, wavering and melancholy. His command shone through as he shaped every phrase and note as though it were molten alloy.
Sanders levered off the second set at a cracking pace with a high pressure snare fusilade, and kept up a power drive interspersed with detached sorties into more faceted ground. Thomas’s wild arpeggios and a spell of Reich-like bass programming set up a challenge to which Wadada responded by taking off with an unquenchable resolve, to build up stark, layered, reverberating pitches which turned the confines of Café Oto into a veritable sound chamber.
Wadada imposed his authority on proceedings, but at the same time ensured that it was the ensemble’s combined experience that elevated the musical proposition to that level that to which Miles aspired – abstract, questioning, open-ended – and totally absorbing.
“Pretty cool, huh?” a smiling Wadada told it as it was. “Coolness is cool … just gotta find that heartbeat, the heart inside the heart,” and then he went on to say, like Brötzmann, how much he enjoyed the vibe and the audience at Cafe Oto, and playing in London.
Coxon referred afterwards to Wadada as having ‘such strength’, while Wadada informally expressed great admiration for his co-musicians. A tremendous evening.
Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet; John Coxon – guitar; John Edwards – bass; Mark Sanders – drums; Pat Thomas – piano/keyboard; Phil Wachsmann – violin
* Drawings copyright Geoff Winston 2011. All rights reserved.