Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira – Dark Lady of the Sonnets
(Tum Records TUM CD023. CD review by Chris Parker)
The defining musical relationship in the trio Mbira might be assumed to be – given their close association over the years -– that between trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, but the pipa player Min Xiao-Fen also plays a
vital role in the creation of the band’s unique sound.
Like Smith, the Chinese ‘lute’ player is at once thoroughly grounded in the tradition and history of her instrument, but simultaneously able to make its music relevant to the contemporary scene (previous collaborations include recordings with Derek Bailey, John Zorn and Randy Weston), so she is able to fit right in with his overall philosophy for Mbira: ‘realizing a spiritual music within the American creative music idiom’ that draws on the Zimbabwean Shona music tradition suggested by the trio’s name (see Francis Bebey’s African Music for a lucid explanation of the significance of the ‘thumb piano’), but ‘with a creative contextualization defined in the contemporary musical language’.
The actual music produced by Mbira might be most readily described as ‘free jazz’, being (in Smith’s words) ‘non-metrical in design’, but as he suggests, it is none the less infused with ‘the authentic energy and feeling that rhythm has’, courtesy chiefly of akLaff’s almost telepathic connection with the melody instruments.
The ‘dark lady’ of the title is Billie Holiday, and her unique dramatic sensitivity infuses Mbira’s music (other pieces are written in celebration of Smith’s mother, a Zulu water festival and the natural world), rendering it, as Smith claims in his eloquent liner notes, at once ‘powerful, fiery and polycentric’.
An intriguing, wholly original album.