Album review

Wadada Leo Smith – ‘Trumpet’ and ‘Sacred Ceremonies’

Wadada Leo Smith with Milford Graves and Bill Laswell, Sacred Ceremonies (3CDs) / TUM Box 003

Wadada Leo Smith, Trumpet (3CDs) / TUM Box 002

Wadada Leo Smith with Milford Graves and Bill Laswell, Sacred Ceremonies (3CDs) / TUM Box 003

(Album Reviews by Jon Turney)

Here you’ll find what for my money is one of the outstanding CD releases of the year. But let’s work up to it slowly.

These two beautifully presented box sets mark Wadada Leo Smith’s 80th year, and show he is a still a creative force as player, composer and improviser – and, indeed, that the indivisibility of all three remains a key to his work.

The first is entirely devoted to solo trumpet pieces, all recorded in an ancient stone church in Finland where he communed with his instrument for four days. He had scope to explore every possible use of the horn, and the results unfold slowly, inviting the listener to pay as close attention to each note as Smith is giving to choosing it. The recording, heard on a decent rig, will put you in the pleasingly reverberant room with the player and his horn, every pealing note and squeezed tone captured perfectly.

Still, three CDs of solo trumpet is quite a demand on the listener’s time, and even devotees are probably not going to go through this lot in one go. Smith has been playing solo almost as long as he has been recording – more than 50 years now – so this collection is a development of a long-practiced mode rather than offering any startling departures. There is much beauty of tone, offset by avoidance much of the time of the most common intervals. Each piece is annotated generously by the composer, usually as an indication of what he was thinking about. The inspirations include film (Rashomon), fellow musicians, writers (James Baldwin) and various spiritual figures in the mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism.

They don’t seem to affect the music very directly, so best, perhaps, to take the notes as interesting for disclosing what Smith was meditating on at the time, but the music as a cue for your own meditation on whatever comes to you in the moment.

Each CD has one long work among shorter pieces and the second of these – perhaps the box highlight, or at least the one I enjoyed most- is a more direct signpost to meditation. The Great Litany references a Sufi saint and the five parts, with Smith leaning strongly towards Miles in saudade mode, do indeed feel like an aid to clearing the mind, and focussing on higher or deeper matters. It’s a beautiful sequence, and a particularly nourishing item in a box of good things.

Sacred Ceremonies: Good things things abound in the second box as well, where the austerity of unaccompanied trumpet is left behind for encounters with two other equally resourceful players. Disc one is a duo with Milford Graves, the force of nature who passed earlier this year. The set, captured in 2016, is both like and unlike sessions Smith has recorded with other drummers. As usual, he projects the confidence of experience that the clarity of his tone, and beautifully timed, simple statements will complement the polyrhythmic power of a trap set. His familiar inspirations are strongly in evidence, the Milesian ring of the horn and phrase shapes at times that sound uncannily like Don Cherry.

The difference, of course, is that Graves is unlike other drummers. His meter is more flexible than the norm and his sound unusually resonant, in a way that makes the listener very aware that drums are three-dimensional objects. His intricately braided Afro-American percussion sounds are a fine foil for the trumpeter, who revels in the shifting textures and timbres he is responding to.

You can say the same about disc two, a duet with Bill Laswell’s superbly poised fretless bass. Laswell, who captured all the music in this box set in his own studio, is a deceptively subtle player, seemingly committed to “less is more” but so forceful in his simplicity that he can dominate a whole section of the music without apparent effort – not unlike the trumpeter in fact. As that suggests, they are superb partners, making spacious, well-proportioned music that has, I fancy, a little more give and take than the set with Graves. Perhaps the bassist moves more toward Smith’s concept than Graves was inclined to – the drummer rather does what he will and leaves the trumpet to work with the results. Or perhaps he was closer to begin with: Laswell is such a vastly experienced and committed collaborator it is hard to say. Either way the results are richly satisfying.

And so to the trio disc, counter-intuitively recorded some months before the duos. Graves remains his unmistakeable self, but his contribution is less all-pervasive than in his duo. There is plenty of space for bass and trumpet to come to the fore, with Laswell also contributing some synth additions as he does on his duo set. The bassist remains a seemingly calming influence, sometimes taking flight himself but more often pinning down the rhythm with simple figures. The approach varies through the set, with tracks that feature unaccompanied intros from each player, others with each pair beginning, a few where all three set off together. And that’s when the special quality of this recording is most apparent. The effect when the trio are all pitching in is a fine, bubbling sonic stew. The first four tracks are credited to all three players, with three that follow composed by Smith, but the feel is much the same throughout. It’s superficially a marvel that players who have not met in a studio before can work together so well for a day, but these three have spent lifetimes preparing for moments like this. It’s clear they made the most of this one. It would have been good to hear this trio develop, but this never to be repeated one-off encounter is a keeper – a perfect capstone for the whole package.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. Twitter: @jonwturney

LINKS: Trumpet at TUM Records

Sacred Ceremonies at TUM Records

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