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Wadada Leo Smith: America's National Parks

Mark Sullivan By

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The U.S. National Park Service celebrates its centennial in 2016 (it was created in 1916 when Congress passed the Organic Act). There are many celebrations planned, but few are likely to match the power and individuality of Wadada Leo Smith's epic six-part suite. Over the two discs (a bit over 90 minutes total playing time) Smith explores the spiritual and psychological aspects of setting aside reserves for common property for the use of American citizens—and the political dynamics involved. The music was composed for his Golden Quintet, an expanded version of the quartet he has led for the last 16 years.

In addition to the leader's trumpet, pianist Anthony Davis returns, along with bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. Cellist Ashley Walters completes the group, giving the composer new melodic and coloristic possibilities. Smith was especially inspired melodically: "The cello as a lead instrument with the trumpet is magnificent," he says. And he also feels the expansion will prolong or enhance the life of the ensemble.

Many composers would be seduced into romantic excess by the majestic vistas and natural grandeur of the parks, but Smith is more interested in the idea of the parks. He rejects the notion that the grandeur of nature is like a religion or a cathedral. The opening selection, "New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718" (the second-longest part of the suite) illustrates his approach. First, it shows the liberties he takes with the definition of a "national park." There is no formal New Orleans park, but it was the first cultural center in America, and the birthplace of the first authentic American music. 1718 is the year the city was founded, as a French colony. There is an opening theme, then an ostinato pattern underpinning the solos (starting with a lovely turn on muted trumpet by the leader). An unaccompanied piano solo leads into various chamber instrumental combinations, including bass and cello features. Finally the opening theme returns. So compositionally it's like a classical form: ABA, or maybe ABCA, depending on how you hear it. It's easy to hear the compositional framework, as well as the improvisational contributions.

"Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park" celebrates the life and work of Southern, the African-American musicologist, author and founder of the journal The Black Perspective in Music, to which Smith has contributed. A much more compact piece, it employs a sparse chamber jazz arrangement, in contrast to the expansive opener. There's less drama, and more conversation between the instruments. The Quintet works on a smaller scale here, and they are just as effective.

The remaining locales range through the National Park system. "Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America -The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872" is one of the grander pieces. As the title says, it was the first U.S. National Park, and may be the first National Park established anywhere in the world. "The Mississippi River..." encompasses the entire river, not just the area of the park. The c.5000 BC date given to the piece is the end of the last Ice Age, when all of the planet's sea levels were established. In keeping with the grand subject, this is the longest piece in the suite. "Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks..." features big dramatic chords, perhaps tone painting depicting the huge, ancient trees. "Yosemite..." concludes the set, a tribute to "The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill." It includes a striking unaccompanied trumpet solo, as well as an extended drum solo.

With America's National Parks Smith has chosen an expansive subject: his writing and his band are equal to the task. The music ranges from solo passages, to chamber music, to free jazz ensembles, to almost orchestral sounds. It truly is music as big as the great outdoors.

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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