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Wadada Leo Smith: Najwa

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith is one of the few musicians remaining from the original, founding generation of Chicago's legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. But he has hardly rested since; Smith's Ten Freedom Summers (2012, Cuneiform) was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music; in 2017, Smith swept the Downbeat Critics' Poll for Trumpeter, Artist, and Album (America's National Parks, [Cuneiform]) of the Year, and he was named Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association.

On Najwa, Smith builds his personal "Mt. Rushmore of Jazz" with tributes to Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Billie Holiday, evenly divided like a bookmark by its soft and floating title track. But he honors these pillars with an unfettered collective jazz sound that arises, buzzes and swarms like bees from quite unconventional instrumentation: Smith on trumpet, four guitarists (Michael Gregory Jackson, Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross, and his grandson Lamar Smith), drummer Pheeroan AkLaff and percussionist Adam Rudolph, all pulled together, processed and produced by bassist Bill Laswell. "He's interested in what happens after the music is recorded," Smith suggests. "I very much like that notion, that idea or that philosophy, when he tweaks it into a whole unique 'other' version of what that recorded music can be."

Smith constructed the first two tributes, to Coleman and Coltrane (which total more than thirty minutes). as mini-suites: "Each has a second movement within the context of the overall shape," he explains. "They're shaped like miniature suites within the context of a single album. And then the whole album has the shape of a tribute. It's all about people and, therefore, it's also organically unified, based around these people who I respect."

Najwa is full of humor and mystery. In "Ornette Coleman's Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: A Resonance Change in the Millennium," the leader's trumpet synthesizes Miles Davis' ferociousness, Don Cherry's playfulness, and Nils Petter Molvaer's icy European cool while the guitarists gnaw on its bony rhythm like a pack of starving dogs. A guitar solo pecks its way out from inside "Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme" before retreating back into its brittle shell; then the ensemble settles into a thick reggae lockstep, grooving slow, which Smith's trumpet surveys with the ancient, all-seeing eye of the sphinx.

The title track tranquilly hovers in floating space time, with acoustic and electric guitar notes floating like scraps of metal through its thick, cavernous emptiness; Smith sings a song to a lost love through his trumpet, worrying this ballad into the blues, tethered to absolutely nothing at all.

"You can see that creativity is the home of the human character," Smith muses in his liner notes. "And it expresses the ultimate view from the past to the present to the future, of what the human being is capable of—capable of imagining and capable of actually capturing that imagination by evolving forward or moving past it. Only creativity allows you to do that."

Track Listing: Ornette Coleman's Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: A Resonance Change in The Millennium; Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme; Najwa; Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multisonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of Rare Beauty; The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, With Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers.

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Michael Gregory Jackson: guitars; Henry Kaiser: guitars; Brandon Ross: guitars; Lamar Smith: guitars; Bill Laswell: electric bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums; Adam Rudolph: percussion.

Title: Najwa | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: TUM Records

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