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Wadada Leo Smith's Mbira: Dark Lady of the Sonnets

Dave Wayne By

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Trumpet and drums—a truly primal combination—are joined by the delicately trilling, archaic and arcane sounds of the Chinese lute or pipa on Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Wadada Leo Smith's musical venture with a new trio, Mbira. At age 70, Smith's torrid creative pace is matched only by the forged-steel strength of his trumpet playing. Percussionist Pheeroan AkLaff has been working with Smith since the early 1970s. Their musical connection is telepathic, and the two move almost as one throughout Dark Lady of the Sonnets. And yet, the two don't have to make room for vocalist and pipa player Min Xiao-Fen. She's an intrepid musical adventurer who brings an impeccable musical pedigree to the table—both as an improviser and as an interpreter of Western classical and traditional Chinese music.

The warmth and humanity of Dark Lady of the Sonnets is striking— this is not one of those academic, furrowed-brow sort of avant-garde recordings. The title, of course, refers to Wadada's muse, Billie Holiday, and the players seem to be telling stories, having conversations, crying, and laughing. "Sarah Bell Wallace" unfolds somberly—a three-way conversation between pipa, trumpet and malleted toms ensues before AkLaff switches over to sticks and sets up a hypnotic ride pattern for the others, now bubbling and joyous, to play around with. Smith's jagged, confrontational trumpet jolts "Blues: Cosmic Beauty" out of the chute. His ferocious playing is soon matched in fervor by both Min and AkLaff before the three tail off to state the fragmentary, somewhat abstract theme. The lighthearted and nimble Min uses a glissando technique here to approximate the sound of a blues guitar. Min's singing here remains rooted in the traditional Chinese style, though her freewheeling, improvisational sensibility shines through. The lovely, melodic "Zulu Water Festival" is sweet and lush.

Ostensibly a contemplation of the reflected images of 60,000 Zulus dancing around a lake, the influence of traditional Chinese music is also quite palpable. The title track starts out as a delicate ballad-like piece featuring Min's exquisitely hushed voice. Just as the music moves toward complete silence, the trio explodes with a heraldic, Ornette Coleman-like theme over roiling free-jazz drums. Smith's solo here is breathtaking, and Min doesn't miss a beat—her pipa's right there comping, prodding, pushing. Unlike the CD's other tracks, "Mbira"—as Smith points out in his liner notes—is a complex, episodic piece that seems to hang suspended in space, bringing the CD to a thoughtful finale.

For the musically adventurous, Dark Lady of the Sonnets is a veritable feast of soulful new sounds, poignantly emotional expressions, and interesting textures from three master musicians who really hear each other on a profound level.

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