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How best to impart compositional intent to a band? Musical notation, graphical diagrams, singing or playing parts or discussing motives and visions? Veteran percussionist Warren Smith has experienced the whole gamut over his 74 years, with everyone from Charles Mingus, Muhal Richard Abrams, Bill Dixon, Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison to contemporary classical composer Harry Partch. For his own Natural/Cultural Forces, Smith adopts the last approach to guide the imaginations of tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb, French horn player Mark Taylor and bassist Tom Abbs.
In spite of a long career, Smith has relatively few recordings under his own name, making this disc noteworthy. Drawing from a library of over 300 compositions, the percussionist has a lot of ground to make up. He deploys gongs, tympani, marimba and all manner of devices in the realization of the six pieces here and his compositional method conjures a loose improvisational feel and elicits spirited performances from his band.
At nearly 20 minutes, "Pyramid" dominates the album, both in length and sustained interest through multiple sections, including a stately duet between Taylor and Lamb and a theme contrasting long tones with scuttling improv and breath sounds. Sadly that is the only piece for the full quartet, with duets between Smith and each band member and finally two solo percussion pieces rounding out the program. Not that the rest is at all bad: "Epicenter" is a free ranging study in percussion and bass textures while the closer "El Yunque" is structured around pitched percussion, gongs and marimba, though they pale in comparison with the opener. Here's looking to a whole album by the quartet next time out.
Track Listing: Pyramid; American Flamingo; Taurus at Pasture; Epicenter; Royal Drums of Duke's Court; El Yunque.
Personnel: Tom Abbs: bass; Andrew Lamb: tenor saxophone; Warren Smith: drums, percussion, marimba; Mark Taylor: French horn.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.