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Album Review

Wadada Leo Smith: String Quartets Nos. 1-12

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Wadada Leo Smith: String Quartets Nos. 1-12
In the thirty-page booklet that accompanies Wadada Leo Smith's String Quartets Nos. 1-12, the trumpeter & composer devotes a few paragraphs to the subject of inspiration. He traces an irregular line whose points include Claude Debussy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Muddy Waters, Ornette Coleman, and others. But those diverse artists, who came and went before Smith, have no markers in this seven-disc box set; they illuminate the composer's creative process and lay the barest groundwork for his new concepts.

The RedKoral Quartet dates back to Smith's Pulitzer Prize finalist Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) and features violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violist Andrew McIntosh and cellist Ashley Walters. Joining the core group on single pieces are Alison Bjorkedal on harp, pianist Anthony Davis, Lynn Vartan on percussion, guitarist Stuart Fox and vocalist Thomas Buckner. Smith conducts his original compositions and plays trumpet on String Quartets Nos. 6 and 8. The finale, brings in violists Lorenz Gamma, Linnea Powell, and Adrianne Pope along with McIntosh.

With a playing time of more than five-and-a-half hours, it is a challenge to highlight particular works. Smith's four-movement "String Quartet No. 1" is an elliptical exercise in free rhythm, without adherence to consistent measures. The succeeding movement is melancholy but frenetic at times; the melody is played out in a swirl of tension passed between the players. "String Quartet No. 2" enters a dark, experimental place; the solemn backdrop is countered by kaleidoscopic individual expressions.

Darker still is "String Quartet No. 3—Black Church: A First World Gathering of the Spirit." Smith's composition initially carries a greater wrapping of classical traditions. Halfway through, he invokes a more tumultuous spell, finally realizing a synthesis. Bjorkedal's harp brings an ethereal respite to the third of four movements on "String Quartet No. 4." The single movement of "String Quartet No. 5: In the Diaspora -Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions" has an ominous affectation reminiscent of a Shostakovich chamber piece altered by avant-garde jazz.

"String Quartet No. 6" expands the group with Davis, Vartan, and Smith himself joining the strings. Subtitled "Taif: Prayer in the Garden of the Hijaz," it is a twenty-three-minute single movement. Powerful and poignant, it is alternately driven by piano and trumpet solos, though the quartet remains out front most often. Vartan's percussion adds an element of drama in selective passages. Smith's "String Quartet No. 12," composed for four violas, is a deep, rich conclusion. It is emotionally spacious, stunning even in its most anxious and abandoned passages.

String Quartets Nos. 1-12 is enormously powerful; by turns, serene, complicated, and defiant acts of resilience and commitment. The music overlaps composition and improvisation throughout these collected works but the transformation is often indistinguishable. Ambitious projects are the norm for Smith but, here, he once again raises the bar.

Track Listing

Disc 1: String Quartet No. 1 (1965-1982) Movements 1 - 4, String Quartet No. 2 (1969-1980) 16:52; Disc 2: String Quartet No. 3 "Black Church: A First World Gathering of the Spirit" (1995) Movements 1 & 2, String Quartet No. 4 (1987-2001) Movements 1 – 5; Disc 3: String Quartet No. 5 "In the Diaspora - Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions" (2005), String Quartet No. 6 "Taif: Prayer in the Garden of the Hijaz" (2007), String Quartet No. 7 "Ten Thousand Ceveus Peruvianus Amemevical" (2011); Disc 4: String Quartet No. 8 "Opuntia Humifusa" (2011), String Quartet No. 9 (2001-2015) Movements 1 & 2, String Quartet No. 10 "Angela Davis: Into the Morning Sunlight" (2007-2016); Disc 5: String Quartet No. 11 (1975-2019) Movements 1 – 5; Disc 6: String Quartet No. 11 (1975-2019) Movements 6 – 9; Disc 7: String Quartet No. 12 (2016-2018) Movements 1 & 2.

Personnel

Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Shalini Vijayan: violin; Mona Tian: violin; Andrew McIntosh: viola; Ashley Walters: cello; Stuart Fox: guitar; Alison Bjorkedal: harp; Anthony Davis: piano; Lynn Vartan: percussion; Thomas Buckner: voice / vocals.

Additional Instrumentation

Wadada Leo Smith: conductor.

Album information

Title: String Quartets Nos. 1-12 | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: TUM Records

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