Wadada Leo Smith: America's National Parks

Karl Ackermann By

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In the last half-decade of the inspirational forty-five year career of Wadada Leo Smith, he has generated one bona fide masterpiece after another, building and expanding on the qualities that consistently push his music to an apex with no apparent upper limit. With his four-and-a-half hours Pulitzer Prize finalist Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records, 2012) he unleashed a succession of projects, some of epic stature, such as Occupy The World (TUM Records, 2013), The Great Lakes Suite (TUM Records, 2015), and of a smaller scale like Celestial Weather (TUM, 2015) with John Lindberg and A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke with Vijay Iyer (ECM, 2016).

With America's National Parks Smith has again composed a powerful suite; this one paying homage to both the preservation of natural resources in the US and the concept that Smith describes as ..."setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens." Cellist Ashley Walters joins Smith's long-running Golden Quartet of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. The idea for the suite came from Smith's own research on the subject and from the Ken Burns PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009). The Burns series however, was a treatment that Smith found too mythical while he has addressed these spaces in more transcendent terms.

If the title of America's National Parks conjures up a collection of pastoral compositions, this is not what Smith has delivered. The pieces are probing and sophisticated through-composed, improvised works that allow for individual communication while retaining a core theme. Moreover, the movements are not limited to designated national parks but broadened to include destinations that should be thought of in the same way.

The two-disc set opens with "New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718" followed by "Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park" both of which expand the thinking beyond the lines of the map to include cultural interpretations of landmarks. More graphic—in theme—is "The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River—a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC" which deals with the historical use of that river as a "dumping place" for black bodies.

Though there is a consistent edge of uncertainty to the music, there are many moments of thoughtful serenity and quiet beauty much of which is conveyed by the beautiful playing of Walters. Smith's twenty-eight page score is yet another stunning success in his long line of achievements. It is quixotic in a sensory manner and pointed as a sociological study. If the parks and the country's landmarks are a national treasure, so too is Smith.

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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