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Wadada Leo Smith: Great Lakes Suites

Dan McClenaghan By

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Two of the most enduring voices avant-garde jazz belong to trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and reedman Henry Threadgill. Smith's The Great Lakes Suites, six of his distinctive compositions on a two CD set, teams the two icons inside the equilateral quartet that includes drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist John Lindberg. It sounds like a dream team, and it is. DeJohnette has played on Smith's Golden Quartet, Lindberg has joined the trumpeter in a variety of contexts, groups large and small. Threadgill is new to the fold.

All the groups members—with the exception of Smith—were born and grew up in the Great Lakes area. Smith spent several formative years in Chicago. He says his scores reflect the flatness of the lakes' surfaces, overlaying a subsurface volatility. The six compositions reflect a restraint and patience paired with a roiling turbulence. Lindberg and De Johnette are brilliant agitators, boiling their rhythms up from the depths. Smith and Threadgill lay down the silvery surface sheen. Then the surface explodes.

Smith, in previous recent works, has involved himself in politically important musical statements—The four disc Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) and Occupy the World (TUM Records, 2013), both featuring large ensembles. The Great Lakes Suites moves away from the political to celebrate the magnificent bodies of fresh water in the northern part of the continent with a small group, which is where Smith's artistry is the most approachable, less calamitous, less "for those with open ears only."

The group shifts from four way interplay to duets to solos. Threadgill haunts on the bass flute on "Lake Erie." Lindberg bows in a cold fog. DeJohnette churns up a small squall, then Smith breaks out of the mist with a bright sunrise. Each piece, from the twenty-two minutes in length "Lake Michigan" to ten minutes long "Lake Superior," seems to serve as a small suite by itself. Together they form a spacious and monumental symphony, full of improvisational verve and a measured, patient wisdom.

This crew of free jazz veterans—all in their seventies with the exception of the youngster, the mid-fiftiesh Lindberg—have created, under Wadada Leo Smith's leadership, one of the freshest, most original sets of the new millennium.

Track Listing: CD 1: Lake Michigan; Lake Ontario; Lake Superior. CD 2: Lake Huron; Lake Erie; Lake St. Clair.

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Henry Threadgill: alto saxophone, flute, bass flute; John Lindberg: bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums.

Title: Great Lakes Suites | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: TUM Records

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