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.
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. 3Black 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.