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Wadada Leo Smith: America's National Parks

Dan McClenaghan By

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Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has a feel for the epic in his art, on recordings like: America (Tzadik Records, 2009), a duet set with drummer Jack DeJohnette; "America's Third Century Spiritual Awakening," from his first Golden Quartet (Tzadik Records, 2000) outing; Occupy The World (TUM Records, 2013), with the Finish big band, Tumo; The Great Lakes Suite (TUM Records, 2014), and his massive four disc master work, Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records, 2012), inspired by America's civil rights movement.

He continues in that vein with America's National Parks, featuring another reconfiguration and expansion of his finest musical vehicle, The Golden Quintet—a small increment expansion of the revolving door ensemble, the Golden Quartet, with the addition of cellist Ashley Walters.

Smith's nod to the National Park system is a loose take on the subject matter. There's Yellowstone and Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and Yosemite, but the interpretation of "National Park," in Smith's mind, is flexible. He includes in the category New Orleans, the Mississippi River and Eileen Jackson Southern, the African-American musicologist and founder of the The Black Perspective in Music.

The music here is measured, often minimalistic, often somber in its reverence. And it is deeply bleak and funereal, interspersed with segments of frantic anguish on the riveting masterpiece-within-the-masterpiece: the half hour long "The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River—a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC." The Mississippi: a waterway that Smith calls: "a memorial site which was used as a dumping place for black bodies...I use the word "dark" to show these things are buried or hidden, but the body doesn't stay hidden; it floats up." [Smith's quote is taken from the disc's liner notes by Shaun Brady].

This ensemble sound is what every bandleader aspires to but rarely achieves. Anthony Davis— better known as a classical player/composer, and the pianist on the first Golden Quartet (Tzadik Records, 2000) configuration, as well as the band's Year Of The Elephant (Pi Recordings, 2002)—injects his off-center, idiosyncratic elegance to the sound. John Lindberg, Smith's bassist of choice for The Year Of the Elephant (Pi Recording, 2012) and the trumpeter's duet partner on Celestial Weather (TUM Records, 2015), provides deep rhythmic grooves and dark backdrops. Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff is a flexible groove master/colorist, textural-ist of the highest order; and Ashley Walters' cello paints the rich, beautiful hues that subtly enhance the entire proceedings—the most auspicious addition to a jazz ensemble since Chico Hamilton brought the instrument into his chamber groups in the late 1950s.

And then there's Wadada Leo Smith: his trumpet, open horn, sounds like the voice of a celestial prophet, singing a message to the seeker on the mountain-top. Muted, he's a benevolent spirit of an earthbound netherworld, speaking esoteric-but-undeniable truths. Wrap these sounds together inside the vision of Wadada Leo Smith and you have a seductive and captivating and transcendent ninety minutes of music.

Disc 1's opener on this two CD set, "New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718," throbs to life on a resonant seven note bass riff from John Lindberg. The ensemble sound paints a picture under dark, roiling clouds. Smith's brush doesn't render the Big Easy a celebratory, bon ton roulet type of place. Perhaps he envisions the floating bodies in the Mississippi drifting down to the Crescent City, silent witnesses to America's original sin, on this starkly beautiful twenty-one minute dirge.

Wadada Leo Smith, in the middle of his seventh decade now, has created a body or work that qualifies him as one of America's artistic geniuses, in a league with Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis. A visionary. America's National Parks, along with virtually every recording he has released in the new millennium, confirms it.

Track Listing: CD 1: New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718; Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park; Yellowstone: The First National Park And The Spirit Of America--The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera And Its Ecosystem 1872. CD2: The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the river--A National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC; Sequoia/King's Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliff, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave System 1890; Yosemite: The Glaciers, The Falls, The Wells And The Valley of Goodwill 1890.

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet, director Of The Ensemble; Anthony Davis: piano; Ashley Walters: cello; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums; Jesse Gilbert: video artist.

Title: America's National Parks | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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