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