Wadada Leo Smith: Spiritual Dimensions
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's journey into music is now so far advanced that every record of his is akin to a report from a new place, a musical equivalent of a space probe sending information back from the surface of an alien planet. The other worldly implications of this are well defined over the course of this two disc set in which Smith features in two different group settings, both of which map out the expanding territory of his music with extraordinary clarity. On the first disc, the Golden Quintet line-up of trumpet, piano, bass and two drummers gets about as far away as possible from established notions of what such a line-up is capable of; on the second disc, the territory first mapped out by trumpeter Miles Davis in the 1970s and early 1980s is subject to wholesale reimagining in the hands of Organic, a more expansive groupand not merely by dint of numbers.
Such points of reference are no more than that in Smith's world, however, which is as it should be for any musician working his or her own seam of creativity. With this in mind, "Pacifica" on the first disc could be a statement of intent for any musician with a mind set on the exploratory. The customary instrumental relations are entirely in suspension, with trumpet, piano and bass at times united in rushes of sound. Bassist John Lindberg teases out a telling reminder of why he's one of the most restless spirits on his instrument before Smith's lyricisman aspect of his trumpet playing that's easy to overlook given the fact that it's so astringent and purged of sentimenttakes over in an unaccompanied passage. Vijay Iyer's piano work could now be integral to the success of Smith's music too, even when the impression is undermined by the fade of this piece.
The veiled affinity between Smith and electric period Miles Davis crops up on the lengthy "South Central L.A. Kulture" but filtered of course through Smith's singular sensibility. Lindberg's funk derived vamp imparts the kind of motion around which drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Famoudou Don Moye can coalesce, and even while they do this the piece develops a singular momentum. Smith's fractious lines, some of them coming over with an impatience suggesting a man conscious always of the restorative powers of revision, are both at odds and in accordance with the overall ambience and the cumulative effect is as singular as anything out there.
The continuity between the two discs is provided by "South Central L.A. Kulture," but it's the discontinuities between the two readings that are the key. On the second one the funk is perhaps more pronounced but it doesn't change the fact that this is still pretty rarefied music. Here Smith's vocabulary is that of a deep listener. Sometimes his phrases are exactly on the beat while at others any thoughts of kinship are somehow dissipated. The tension this gives rise to is something that isn't always apparent in Smith's music, but such is the increasingly multi-faceted nature of his art that this is perhaps inevitable.
It's thus no surprise that "Organic" turns out to be something else again. Here the funk is usurped by abstraction and borderline musique concrete to such a degree that ideas of coalescence don't apply. Smith and his cohorts don't go in for ideas that are merely repertorial for all of the Davis connection. Instead they commit to the idea of a restless and indeed radical creativity of a similar but different order, and when the music does come together in a fashion that's more readily idedntifiable the impetus is still stripped back so that the essence shines through. The funk is thus an end in itself even while Smith's instrumental comments reach a notable depth of profundity.
"Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy" closes things out initially in reflective fashion, before things don't so much take off as lift. Lindberg with his bow almost sets himself up in opposition to the momentum of the music at around the seven minute mark, but one of the hallmarks of this group is the degree to which they allude to preconceived notions as touchstones and nothing more. In a sense this is down to the fact that Smith, like his near contemporary Bill Dixon, is now fashioning music that's as radical in its way as Louis Armstrong's was in the 1920s. While the comparison doesn't hold up for a host of reasons, the fact remains that the level of continuity has more than a little substance in creative terms.
Tracks: CD1: Al-Shadhili's Litany of the Sea: Sunrise; Pacifica; Umar at the Dome of the Rock, Parts 1 & 2; Crossing Sirat; South Central L.A. Kulture. CD2: South Central L.A. Kulture; Anglela Davis; Organic; Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy.
Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Vijay Iyer: piano and synthesizer (CD1); John Lindberg: bass (CD1); Pheeroan Aklaff: drums; Don Moye: drums (CD1); Michael Gregory: electric guitar (CD2); Brandon Ross: electric guitar (CD2); Nels Cline: 6 and 12 string electric guitars (CD2); Lamar Smith: electric guitar (CD2#1, CD2#4); Okkyung Lee: cello CD2); Skuli Sverrisson: electric bass (CD2); John Lindberg: acoustic bass (CD2).