Trumpet and composer Wadada Leo Smith remains in one of the most fertile phases of his long and storied career. His prodigious output now enjoys the outlets it needs, courtesy of the Finnish TUM imprint and the US-based Cuneiform Records. And other recordings appear on a variety of independent labels. At least in part that is likely due to the prestige of the Pulitzer Prize recognition for his momentous Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) extravaganza. For this latest extended work inspired by the Great Lakes of North America, Smith enlists the help of fellow AACM alumnus Henry Threadgill, an acclaimed bandleader and composer in his own right. In fact the whole group boasts a stellar pedigree, including as it does the celebrated drummer Jack DeJohnette and master bassist John Lindberg.
While each disc of the two CD set can be appreciated as a suite in itself, the same is also true for each of the six multi sectioned pieces. Restraint, or better yet controlled passion, is a dominant characteristic. As Smith explains in the sumptuous liners, he is looking to express "the simultaneous notions of the lakes being flat and their volatility. Restrained, yet explosive." In doing so Smith has created a set brimming with composerly intent, in which meditative calm rubs shoulders with jostling abstraction. Over the 90-minutes running time, Smith allows ample space for everyone, with bass and drums making the moves as much as the horns. Yet even the unaccompanied passages seem wrought by his conception, as Smith marshals every aspect of the resources at his disposal. Smith's thematic material feels weighty and slow moving, conjuring a somewhat inscrutable impression, like an imposing yet featureless body of water.
Neither the leader or Threadgill are interested in demonstrating virtuosity, as they eschew extended techniques. Smith's fanfares and sustained pitches sit alongside more open textures such as pedal tones, splutters and wheezes, varied by deployment of an array of mutes. But throughout he retains a lyrical streak, permeated with blues feeling. Threadgill is similarly prudent, using his stirring gospel tinged vibrato sparingly. It's most obvious in the opener, but also present in "Lake Huron" during which he embarks on an extraordinary outing where his speech like inflections infuse short phrases with an affecting emotional directness. Elsewhere his flutes offer novel coloration in the ensembles, notably percolating alongside DeJohnette's pattering accompaniment on "Lake Erie."
Lindberg has been a constant beside Smith in recent years and it's easy to see why: he propels forcefully yet maintains counterpoints at the same time. His work with the bow is frequently stunning. DeJohnette often seems to have a free role to color and shade as he sees fit, and he makes full use of such freedom: a consummate percussionist with every timbre ostensibly both inevitable and just right. His minimalist solo on "Lake Michigan" fashioned from a sequence of airy taps acts as a case in point.
There's a lot happening at every level, yet the overall effect is one of serenity, just as a swan smoothly gliding across the water belies the frantic activity of its paddling feet. It's a neat trick that few can pull off so successfully.
Disc One: Lake Michigan; Lake Ontario; Lake Superior.
Disc Two: Lake Huron; Lake Erie; Lake St. Claire.
Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Henry Threadgill: alto saxophone, flute, bass flute; John Lindberg: double bass; Jack Dejohnette: drums.
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