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Wadada Leo Smith: America's National Parks

John Sharpe By

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While the title might conjure up a string of luminous tone poems, the reality of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's magisterial collection goes far beyond that. In fact Smith's notion of a national park encompasses not only the iconic landscapes, but also literary and cultural features. In any case as he explains, he draws his inspiration from the spiritual and psychological dimensions of a specific event or a place, rather than taking a straightforward programmatic approach. The result is Smith's most outstanding release since his monumental Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). No mean feat when considering the quality of his prolific late career output.

Not coincidentally, it's also the product of his long standing Golden Quartet, this time expanded to a quintet by the addition of Ashley Walters' cello. Her sweeping legato strikes a fine blend with the leader's declamatory trumpet, but also adds another color to his palette, exploited to the full in the enthralling arrangements.

On bass, John Lindberg continues in the masterful vein so apparent on Celestial Weather (TUM, 2015), whether in rigorously creative pizzicato or breathing life-giving variation into a riff. Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff brings just the right synthesis of crisp precise figures and orchestral bombast, while pianist Anthony Davis gets to stretch out more than usual, spinning into dark eddies during his rippling single note runs.

Although opportunities for individual expression abound, Smith's artistic intent permeates every moment, informing a stupendous mix of the through composed and the improvised, the abstract and the earthy. The longest cuts, commencing each of the two discs, which are inspired by New Orleans and the Mississippi River, provide some of the best examples. Each is complex and multifaceted and at the same time full of spirit.

An emphatic martial cadence kickstarts "New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718" with a hop, skip and jump feel. Staggered accents, with drums, bass and piano all deliberately out of step, create a gritty tension which seesaws between finely calibrated ensemble configurations and riveting solo passages showcasing the members of the quintet.

At the center of "The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the river—A National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC," after a portentous opening, the band leans into a thrillingly propulsive vamp. In an electrifying sequence, Smith shears across the beat, like a blazing comet, before the whole group embraces wild skittering freedom, briefly interrupted by a series of sustained interjections.

By now Smith's work is totally sui generis, but his bold formulations work. "Sequoia/King's Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliff, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave System 1890" ends with an energetic trumpet/drum duet. Despite generating snatches of breath-taking beauty and soaring grandeur, "Yosemite: The Glaciers, The Falls, The Wells And The Valley of Goodwill 1890" goes one better and finishes the album on a tumultuous drum outpouring. With America's National Parks Smith cements his position as one of the finest composers to emerge from the jazz milieu.

Track Listing: CD 1: New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718; Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park; Yellowstone: The First National Park And The Spirit Of America--The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera And Its Ecosystem 1872. CD2: The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the river--A National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC; Sequoia/King's Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliff, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave System 1890; Yosemite: The Glaciers, The Falls, The Wells And The Valley of Goodwill 1890.

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet, director Of The Ensemble; Anthony Davis: piano; Ashley Walters: cello; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums; Jesse Gilbert: video artist.

Title: America's National Parks | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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