Album review

Wadada Leo Smith – ‘Emerald Duets’ / ‘String Quartets Nos. 1-12’ (boxsets)

Wadada Leo Smith – Emerald Duets / String Quartets Nos. 1-12 (two boxsets)
(TUM Records. Review by Olie Brice)

The Finnish record label TUM has been doing an impressive job of documenting Wadada Leo Smith’s work for more than a decade, and this year – Smith’s 80th – they have taken the job even more seriously. A solo boxset, a boxset with Bill Laswell & Milford Graves, a wonderful double album by his Great Lakes Quartet and a trio with Vijay Iyer & Jack DeJohnette have now culminated in two seriously ambitious projects: a 5-disc box of duets with drummers and a 7-disc box of Smith’s complete compositions for string quartet.

Wadada Leo Smith boxsets album covers

Emerald Duets

Emerald Duets features Smith in duet with four of the greatest living drummers: Pheeroan akLaff, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille and Jack DeJohnette. All four duets are wonderful, and it’s fascinating to hear the different drummers in such similar contexts. 

The Bennink and Cyrille discs stood out, with their beautiful balance of swing and freedom. AkLaff, the youngest drummer of the four, brings a heavier, funkier edge to proceedings. One interesting way to compare duets was listening back to back to the composition The Patriot Act, Unconstitutional and a Force that Destroys Democracy –  which Smith performs with Cyrille, akLaff and DeJohnette, all three takes fascinating both in their differences and similarities.

While it’s true that the boxset is entirely made up of Smith playing duets with drummers, that doesn’t mean that all of the music is duets of trumpet and drums – the fourth disc, a duet with DeJohnette, includes both musicians playing piano at times, with DeJohnette also on Fender Rhodes.

Smith has a rich history of working in duo with drummers – the oldest I’m aware of is a mid-80s masterpiece with Ed Blackwell, and there are several more including earlier meetings with Jack DeJohnette and an incredible album with Louis Moholo. This wonderful set continues that tradition, and long may it continue – it would be great to hear Smith in duo with Mark Sanders, Gerald Cleaver or Nasheet Waits.  

String Quartets Nos. 1-12

String Quartets Nos. 1-12 is an astonishing body of work, collecting all of Smith’s string quartet compositions from 1965 to 2019 (there are already more as-yet unrecorded works) in new recordings by the RedKoral Quartet and various guest soloists. The RedKoral Quartet was formed during Wadada Leo Smith’s tenure at CalArts, initially to participate in his large scale work Ten Freedom Summers. Their performances are fantastic throughout the boxset, with the energy and focus needed combined with a glorious tone.

In the booklet accompanying the set, Smith mentions being influenced in his string writing by: the great Blues guitarists, such as Muddy Waters and BB King; European composers including Bartok, Debussy, Webern and Shostakovitch; and African American composers, from Jelly Roll Morton to Alvin Singelton. All these diverse influences ring true in the rich and varied music in this boxset.  

While the earlier pieces in the boxset are beautiful and original compositions, they can be heard as broadly sitting in the 20th century quartet tradition, with the Bartok and Shostakovich influences particularly audible. The later pieces, however, are truly unique and make it apparent how Smith’s through-notated music is part of the same language as his improvised work. String Quartets 11 and 12 are both masterpieces, with an astonishing intensity and focus.  

Between them these two boxsets give us a valuable insight into the imagination and individuality of one of the most significant creative musicians of our time. Highly recommended.

LINK: TUM Records

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