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Wadada Leo Smith: The Emerald Duets

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Wadada Leo Smith: The Emerald Duets
The pioneering British photographer/author Val Wilmer said of Wadada Leo Smith, "he no longer relates to the restrictions of scales and chords. To him, music is about two things only: sound and rhythm." Her assessment, from the essential book As Serious As Your Life (Allison & Busby Ltd, 1977), was published in 1977. But in the survey of creative music history, her title could have been a sole perspective on Smith.

After being a regular contributor to John Zorn's Tzadik label for more than two decades, Smith has released a dozen albums on the Finnish non-profit TUM label. Of those, box-set editions account for nearly two-dozen individual discs and a windfall of serious, high-quality music. The solemnity with which Smith approaches his music leaves no room for fill and his collaborators are intentionally selected on their earnestness to the craft. Even the TUM packaging has earned a reputation for its artistic sophistication. The Emerald Duets, a five-disc box-set adds to Smith's extensive repertoire of duo recordings; this collection with four of the best drummers in the chronicles of modern music.

Pheeroan AkLaff has been a long-time mainstay in Smith-led recordings beginning with Song of Humanity (Kabell, 1977) and inclusive of the Pulitzer nominated Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). The drummer has recorded extensively with Oliver Lake, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and many other top artists in creative music. The extraordinary drummer and composer Andrew Cyrille has traveled in the same circles as akLaff but is most closely associated with Cecil Taylor with whom he recorded almost a dozen albums. Cyrille's output as a leader/co-leader is a match for any modern drummer having released more than two dozen such albums. He has backed Muhal Richard Abrams, Horace Tapscott, Mal Waldron, Grachan Moncur III, Charlie Haden, Marion Brown, and countless other luminaries of free and avant-garde jazz. He led Smith and Bill Frisell on the acclaimed Lebroba (ECM, 2018). Dutch drummer and percussionist Han Bennink was an early proponent of free improvisation. Bennink was one of the first free jazz drummers to release a solo album, Solo—Voor Masje (Instant Composers Pool, 1974) though he doubled on some rather odd non-percussion instruments. Bennink is best known for his work with Misha Mengelberg and Peter Brötzmann. Jack DeJohnette and Smith had unsuccessfully pitched a project at ECM in the late 1970s but it was not to be despite both being associated with the label. DeJohnette, a member of Smith's Golden Quartet, eventually realized their early concept when John Zorn brought the pair together as a stand-alone duo on America (Tzadik, 2009).

The first disc Litanies, Prayers and Meditations opens with the long ride of "The Prayer (For Keith Jarrett)." The subtle playing of akLaff and Smith's deep, monastic lead are beautifully deferential but without melancholy. "First Meditation from the Heart: the Beauty, the Beloved" sees Smith on piano and akLaff shifting to his more familiar rolling and oscillating style. Havana, Cuba defiantly begins with the sequence of "The Patriot Act, Unconstitutional and a Force that Destroys Democracy," "Havana, the Maghrib Prayer and Reflections," and "United States Representative Ilhan Omar." Smith and Cyrille take us through an impassioned, edgy G.W. Bush era of intrusive surveillance in the first piece. They transfer the listener to the moving prayer of the uncharged Islamic prisoners who remain at Guantanamo Bay almost a dozen years later. A cautiously celebratory tribute to the Somalian-born Congresswoman Ilhan Omar plays out as if above the despair of the badly broken system.

The Han Bennink disc, Mysterious Sonic Fields is a wide-ranging homage that touches on Albert Einstein, the Shaba of Ethiopia, the late South African bassist Johnny Dyani and others. Bennink's dramatic style feels like the observance of an alien ceremony from a roller-coaster. The final two discs bring in DeJohnette on both drums, Fender Rhodes, and piano on Freedom Summer: The Legacy. Smith doubles on piano here as well. The drummer is well established as an accomplished pianist, most recently with his excellent solo album Return (Newvelle Records, 2016). The final disc, Paradise: The Gardens and Fountains returns to the drum-trumpet format. On these discs, there is cinematic propulsion of scenes as the two masters engage in contrapuntal feats that are riveting.

Throughout The Emerald Duets, there is ceaseless and dynamic strength but often it is hiding in plain sight, sheltered within expansive, wide-open spaces. In the majority of works, the fluidity of the trumpet, blending with the brisk encroachment of drums, presents an unusual and compelling dialog. The box set provides many hours of fascinating listening.

Track Listing

Disc 1: Litanies, Prayers and Meditations: The Prayer (For Keith Jarrett); First Meditation from the Heart; the Beauty and the Beloved; The Uyghur in Xinjiang, China; Rumi’s Masnavi: A Sonic Expression, Parts I - IV; A Sound Litany on Peace; The Patriot Act: Unconstitutional and a Force That Destroys Democracy; A Sonic Litany on Justice; Second Meditation from the Heart: the Beloved, The Beauty. Disc 2: Havana: The Patriot Act: Unconstitutional and a Force that Destroys Democracy; Havana, the Maghrib Prayer and Reflections;United States Representative Ilhan Omar; Jeanne Lee: In a Jupiter Mood; Donald Ayer: The Master of Sound and Energy Forms; A Rainbow Sonic Ark for Tomasz Ludwik Stanko (1942 - 2018); Haitian Independent Nation in 1804 But Not Recognized by Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Others: A Designed Tragedy; Mongeze Fezi. Disc 3: Mysterious Sonic Fields: Chrysanthemum F On a Moutaintop (for Katherein Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson; Largo: a Mysterious Love Sonic (forShana, Robson andSarah); Louis Armstrong in New York City and Accra, ghana; Ornette Coleman at the World’s Fair of Science and Art in Fort Worth, Texas; The Call—A Duet Between Joseph “King” Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton; Light Garden in a Dream Space, A Remembrance of Shaba of Ethiopia; Han Bennink on Fifth Avenue, NYC; Johnny Dyani: the Artist who Imagined a New South Africa—a Celebration. Disc 4: Freedom Summer: The Legacy:Sandalwood and Sage; Freedom Summer; Meditation: A Sonic Circle of Double Piano Resonance; The Patriot Act: Unconstitutional and a Force that Destroys Democracy; Silence, Quietness and Very Still. Disc 5: Paradise: The Gardens and Fountains: Part I: The River of Abundance; Part II: The Fountain of Tasnim; Part III: The Supreme Fountain; Part IV: Exaltation and Musk; Part V: Pomegranate and Herbal Teas.

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Wadada Leo Smith: piano, (Disc 1 & 4); Jack DeJohnette: piano, Fender Rhodes (Disc 4).

Album information

Title: The Emerald Duets | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: TUM Records

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