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Warren Smith: Old News Borrowed Blues

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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A record by Warren Smith—any record really—is cause for great celebration and Old News Borrowed Blues is no exception. Smith is not only one of the most stylish master percussionists and a truly accomplished musician. Why a musician of his caliber and standing, with over 300 compositions to his name, should have—after four decades in music—only five records (prior to this one) as leader will remain one of those mysteries of modern music. The title of this record—like his previous release on Engine Records in 2007, Natural/Cultural Forces—is erudite, unlike the more cynically tongue-in-cheek title of his 1979 Mapleshade release Cats Are Stealing My Shit.

Old News Borrowed Blues reflects a somewhat grim musical reality not without good reason. His thesis that there is little innovation in music can hardly be contested with much conviction. But then Smith and his 15-piece ensemble turn all this on its head. So that even if the five compositions represented here are not, in a sense "new," they have been spectacularly recast. Long known for exploring rhythmic expansion and the timbral elasticity of his repertoire of percussion instruments, Smith has long distinguished himself also for his spectacular sense of melody. And now there is a real case for honoring his mastery of tonal coloration as well.

In many respects the music played by this band sits on a pretty level playing field with the larger ensembles of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and also of Carla Bley's big bands, and Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. The writing and performance of brass and woodwinds on "Lock the Toilet Door" and "One More Lick for Harold Vick" are a superb testament to harmonic invention. Metric blues notwithstanding, these two charts feature devastatingly beautiful contrapuntal playing—especially in the riff of the former tune. The brass are puckish; the woodwinds extremely svelte and in the bleating of the trombones, the compositions are gloriously elliptical.

The recording features two avowedly tonal poems. The first is "Rivers State Suite," a superb programmatic work describing probably a memorable expedition to Nigeria. It is a mind-expanding work with a spiraling rhythmic center. Add the element, however imagined, of the griots telling creation stories at the time of Smith's trip, despite the fact that the picture is now an instrumental one and there us a sense of the epic in this tune. The second tone poem, "The Hungarian Gypsy Song," pays oblique tribute to Bela Bartok's late compositional experiments.

"Free Forms 1-4" is a selection from a cycle of ten improvised rhythmic settings that Smith has made into a stand-alone song here. It is also the final set of compositions on this important companion to Natural/Cultural Forces. But more than anything, this record ought to bring back into focus one the most important, least recognized musicians of any decade in contemporary American music. Released by a sub-label of ESP-Disk, this is a musical document of urgency and importance, not to be taken lightly, much less ignored.

Track Listing: Lock the Toilet Door; Rivers State Suite; The Hungarian Gypsy Song; One More Lick for Harold Vick; Free Forms 1-4.

Personnel: John Carlton: trumpet and flugelhorn; Cecil Bridgewater: trumpet and flugelhorn; Joe Daley: euphonium; Jack Jeffers: bass trombone; Craig Rivers: soprano saxophone; James Stewart: tenor saxophone; Douglas Yates: alto saxophone; Andrew Lamb: tenor saxophone soloist (2); Claire Daly: baritone saxophone; Jaribu Shahid: bass violin; Yoham "Chiqui" Ortiz: guitar; Elusegun Sangofemi: African percussion; Jose Abreu: African percussion; Lloyd Haber: drums, vibraphone and percussion; Warren Smith: drums, vibraphone and percussion.

Title: Old News Borrowed Blues | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ESP Disk

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