Multi-talented percussionist Warren Smith is one of the most versatile and inventive musicians to ever emerge from the fertile New York-based scene, though he may lack the name recognition of some of his more famous peers and collaborators, including Max Roach's all-star M'Boom ensemble, Gil Evans, Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton. Natural/Cultural Forces, which encompasses a lengthy quartet piece, three duets and two solo pieces, displays Smith's mastery of the trap set as well as a variety of tuned percussion including marimba, gongs and tympani.
The music's fascinating sources of inspiration are described by Smith himself in the liner notes as "Duke Ellington, animals free in their natural element and geographical locations...musically depicted. Rather than compose graphic notation, we used conceptual improvisation.
"Pyramid opens the set with Smith, saxophonist Andrew Lamb, bassist Tom Abbs and French horn player Mark Taylor endeavoring in a twenty-minute opus that simulates an audio documentary of the sharp angles, geometric integrity and acoustic properties of the tune's namesake. The players are free to explore many corners of this imaginative form, veering from initially tentative melodic contours to a turbulent explosion of collective sound sculpture.
Deconstructed to a duo but just as lively, "American Flamingo opens with Lamb's piercing, bird-like mouthpiece exhortations, which give way to the dancing, serpentine logic of an abstracted melodic/harmonic development. The track calls to mind the seminal duets of the aforementioned Roach and Braxton on Birth and Rebirth (Black Saint, 1978), with Smith's frenetic, multidirectional ride cymbal and tom-tom assault straddling the line between hard swing and African-derived polyrhythms.
Calm arrives in the form of "Taurus at Pasture, a dialogue of marimba and French horn that evokes a rustic, bucolic environment. The unique resonance of the latter instrument splits the difference between a flugelhorn and trombone, and Taylor's long, contemplative tones recall Miles Davis in ballad mode, interspersed with shades of Bill Dixon's muted dissonance and the rich timbre of Grachan Moncur III.
From those green fields, things go straight underground with the tympani and bass duo of "Epicenter. Exploring a low-end range of sonorities together, Smith and Abbs alternate pitches in a sort of syncopated, rubato march through the center of the Earth, never stepping on each other's toes and avoiding the muddy paths that could result from such an instrumental pairing.
"Royal Drums of Duke's Court is the centerpiece of the record, and Smith proves he's in a class by himself with this heartfelt medley dedication on solo tympani. The percussionist displays a singular virtuosity and expertise of touch, quoting Duke Ellington in much the same manner as saxophonist Steve Lacy interpreted Thelonious Monk: personalized, idiosyncratic and obviously backed by years of dedicated study and hard work, generated by a true love of the maestro in question.
The set closes with "El Yunque, a solo sound collage where Smith breaks out his full assembly that includes gongs, woodblocks and more, alternately executed with meditative precision in a playful, free-time reverie.
Personnel: Warren Smith: drums, percussion; Tom Abbs: bass(1,4); Andrew Lamb: tenor sax(1, 2); Mark Taylor: French horn(1, 3).