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

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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In the epic narratives and gorgeous elegies of trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith lies a heart immersed in the spirituality of the blues. His music drinks from an ancient well that predates organized worship and actually resides in one that celebrates the Creator in his awesome glory. This is why Smith is able to make his horn not merely an extension of his lips and tongue, but of his heart and soul. His unique voice is an extension of these organs, which form the temple of his worshipful self. Smith's voice is truly special—neither shrill nor gruff, although these form the extremities of his extraordinary range. However, he plays melodies in short, pithy lines punctuated by glittering, bronzy hallelujahs and a gravely uttered amen. Smith plays these lines like ancient doxologies and reverent refrains, as if pleading the case for the union of an earthly soul to a higher power.

One of these souls is "Sarah Bell Wallace." The real-life character is Smith's mother, whose radiant personality loomed larger-than-life in her hometown in the Mississippi Delta. Smith celebrates her in a long, elegiac chart on Dark Lady of the Sonnets, remarkably detaching her from the maternal relationship she had with him, and instead casting her in the context of the community she served. Employing a declarative style, almost like a town crier, Smith carves a sonic statue, finishing off characteristics in short, sharp flourishes that appear to be more than merely decorative embellishments.

Sarah Bell Wallace is one of two central characters on this wonderful album. The other is "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets" (who is actually Billie Holiday, not the lover of Elizabethan poet and playwright, William Shakespeare), the character in an elegiac poem by legendary African-American poet Amiri Baraka. This chart forms the spine of the album, a superbly crafted song embroidered with the voice of Chinese vocalist and pipa player, Min Xiao-Fen and percussion colorist Pheeroan AkLaff. Baraka's elegiac magnum opus is turned into an extraordinary journey into the life of the great vocalist, with akLaff's powerful drumming and Smith's reverent trumpet and flugelhorn playing key roles in describing her.

The other key feature of this album is "Mbira," music for a ballet played in the style of a spiritual form of instrumental music from the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe. The choice of this chart is inextricably linked to the drinking of water from the ancient well. Smith ties this all in with glorious lines that shoot out of the bell of his horn. Significantly the Shona people, living near the Great Rift Valley, are at the heart of human civilization, making this a rather special theme for a significant album by Wadada Leo Smith.

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