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Wadada Leo Smith: String Quartets Nos. 1-12


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Wadada Leo Smith: String Quartets Nos. 1-12
Wadada Leo Smith's seven CD boxset String Quartets Nos. 1-12 summons two words, epic and ineffable. The 5½ hours of music chronicle three of his four periods writing for string quartets from 1965 until 2019. The remaining work, "String Quartets Nos. 13, 14, and 15" inspired by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, although written, have yet to be recorded. Smith's vision is skillfully executed by the RedKoral Quartet—Shalini Vijayan (violin), Mona Tian (violin), Andrew McIntosh (viola), and Ashley Walters (cello)—and several additional guest musicians.

The octogenarian Smith shows no signs of slowing down; in fact, after leaving his teaching position at CalArts in 2013, his composing performance has surged. He released dozens of discs including the following on TUM Recordings—The Great Lakes Suites (2014), Rosa Parks: Pure Love (2019), A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday (2021), Sacred Ceremonies (2021), Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk, and Trumpet (2021). Smith has only two other contemporaries working at the same level, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. All three are AACM artists and have embraced nearly every musical genre from blues to standards and free improvisation to contemporary music. For Smith there is no separation, no such thing as jazz or classical. There is only music.

These String Quartet recordings are equal to the Herculean release Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) a four-CD set which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in music. These recordings make a strong case for finally awarding Smith that esteemed honor. That earlier release and Rosa Parks: Pure Love, America's National Parks (Cuneiform. 2016), and 10 Freedom Summers utilized members of the RedKoral String Quartet, players Smith became familiar with during his time at CalArts. Theirs is the presiding voice heard throughout the recordings, with an appearance by harpist Alison Bjorkedal on "String Quartet No. 4," plus Smith himself and vocalist Thomas Buckner on "String Quartet No. 8 Opuntia Humifuse." RedKoral is further enlarged on "String Quartets No. 6: Taif: Prayer In The Garden Of The Hijaz" with second violin Lorenz Gamma, plus pianist Anthony Davis, percussionist Stuart Fox, and Smith's trumpet. These musicians have collaborated with Smith on his larger projects in the past, and Davis' relationship dates back to Smith's self-released Kabell Records from the '70s.

The music is commensurate with works by Duke Ellington, such as Black, Brown & Beige (Columbia, 1958), Anthony Braxton's Ghost Trance Music, and Ornette Coleman's Skies Of America (Columbia, 1972), all music which is beyond description and lucid explanation. His tributes to jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith draw nothing from their catalogs, but Smith's translation of their personage sounds as angels and spirits. These string quartet recordings are a glimpse into how Smith perceives the world through this lens of beyond category music. Some of the scores are traditionally notated, others utilize his own musical language he calls Ankhrasmation. These are scores, but also artworks which convey Smith's beyond notation concepts. The two words mentioned at the top, epic and ineffable, are certainly applicable. The music sweeps over one while also delivering a remarkable panoramic vista.

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.


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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