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Reviewers: Glyn Pursglove, Jonathan Woolf

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Wadada Leo Smith

Najwa

TUM CD 049 [55:43]

 

 

 

1.Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: A Resonance Change in the Millenium

2.Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme

3.Najwa

4.Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of A Rare Beauty

5.The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers

(All composed by Smith)

Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet), Michael Gregory Jackson (guitars), Henry Kaiser (guitars), Brandon Ross (guitars), Lamar Smith (guitars), Bill Laswell (electric bass), Pheeroan akLaff (drums), Adam Rudolph (percussion)

Recorded New York City March 6-7 2014

While the music of Wadada Leo Smith is distinctive and individual, it is also deeply rooted in the traditions of jazz and blues, as inSolo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, released on the very same day (and by the same label) as Najwa. On Solo, Smith was concerned to communicate his response to the music and personality of a single ‘hero’ of the tradition – Thelonious Monk. On Najwa Smith responds to a whole development in the tradition, rather than to the work of one individual.

The stimulus behind Najwa is made explicit by Smith in the first paragraph of his contribution to the album booklet: “In twentieth-century American music, the guitar eclipsed the trumpet, the saxophone and the piano as the predominant musical instrument. Starting with Muddy Waters, the six-stringed guitar plugged into an amplifier offered unlimited possibilities as a tool for creating sounds that could be altered / filtered / electronically processed through the use of pedals”.

Mississippi-born Leo Smith became acquainted with the possibilities of the electric guitar when still very young, since his stepfather, Alex ‘Little Bill’ Wallace, was a blues guitarist who adopted the instrument. Smith has never been shy of playing with guitarists on earlier recordings – he also used 4 guitarists (as here) in one of the sessions on Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009), for example. The electronic capacity to ‘alter’, ‘filter’ and ‘process’ sound has always interested him, as evidenced, for example, on Snakish (Leo, 2005), where he works alongside the guitar of Miroslav Tadic and the electronic music of both Walter Quintus and Mark Naseef.

The present album, apart from the ‘effects’ (such as reverb, echo and delay) of the four guitars and the bass, also involves post-production work by the bassist Bill Laswell. Smith was attracted, he says, to “the idea of making the session and then going back and re-recording some of the areas and then sitting down with Bill and allowing him to tweak it in certain ways and re-reference in a whole different way”. The result has an airiness and relative lightness of sound not often found in, for example, the electric albums of Miles Davis, although such albums provide an obvious reference point here, as they did in Smith’s work in the group ‘Yo Miles’ which he co-led with Henry Kaiser, one of the guitarists here on Najwa. Another such point of reference (to call it a ‘source’ would be unduly crude) is provided by such Ornette Coleman recordings as Dancing in Your Head (A &M, 1976) and Body Meta (Artists House, 1977). Smith’s musical language emerges, however, as something more warmly human, more various in texture and rhythm.

The programme on Najwa is, in effect, a kind of arch, with the short title-track as the keystone of the arch. ‘Najwa’ (the word is a female name in Arabic, meaning something like ‘whisper’ or ‘’secret’), Smith tells us is “a love song or, perhaps more accurately, a tragic song for a love lost”. The three and a half minutes of ‘Najwa’ are a miniature masterpiece, beautiful in its melancholy, from the shimmering sounds of the opening, with an acoustic guitar prominent, through the restrained passion of Smith’s muted trumpet to the evanescent textures at the close. In the highest and best senses of the word, this is exquisite music. Either side of ‘Najwa’ are ‘pillars’ made up of two longer tracks, paying tribute to jazz figures much admired by Smith

The first of these is ‘Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms’, which begins with a few bars full of Coleman-like phrases. On my first hearings this was the one track on Najwa which rather tried my patience; further hearings, however, have helped me to recognise the subtlety of its layering of sound and its overall shape. Those opening bars are followed by a long section dominated by Laswell and akLaff (both of whom play superbly throughout the album), which is, in turn, followed by slower, less insistently-driven music, with some poignant trumpet from Smith, accompanied by atmospheric guitar colours and some particularly sensitive work by Laswell and akLaff. In ‘Ohnedaruth John Coltrane’ ( ‘Ohnedaruth’ is a Sanskrit spiritual name which Coltrane adopted) the first ‘movement’ of the piece is characterised by some fiery drumming and percussion, with intermittently ferocious work from the guitars, over which Smith plays some complex trumpet, mixing long lines with some shorter phrases, often at the top end of the instrument’s register; the second ‘movement’ brings the piece to a close in a more settled and simpler rhythm, sounding like a kind of Caribbean-influenced funk.

The last instrumentalist to whom tribute is paid is the drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (1940-2013), whose illustrious musical CV included work/recordings with Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Albert Ayler, James ‘Blood’ Ulmer and many others. In 1975 he joined Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band, playing on both Dancing in Your Head and Body Meta. He played on a number of albums by Cecil Taylor. From 1979 he led his own band, The Decoding Society. In 2005 he joined Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, with Vijay Iyer and John Lindberg. He died of leukaemia in the autumn of 2013. His playing was often thunderous and superficially somewhat wild, though actually very disciplined and structured when listened to carefully. He could produce trance-like rhythms or play elaborate cross-rhythms.

Given all that, it is no surprise that Pheeroan akLaff and Adam Rudolph should feature prominently on ‘Ronald Shannon Jackson’. But Bill Laswell is also a very important presence here, as throughout the album, his bass lying down the dominant rhythmic pulse and, along with the drums of akLaff, giving this piece its primary impulsion, above which Smith plays with some ferocity, the whole coloured by the sounds of the four guitars. At its close, perhaps the finest part of the piece, Smith’s trumpet echoes memorably above some dark-coloured rhythms. The word ‘memorable’ is certainly appropriate to the CD’s final magnificent track – a moving tribute to Billie Holiday, of which the very title (not unusually for Smith) is a short poem in its own right. This is a beautiful track, lyrically meditative, yet shot through with a sense of pain even when seeming most peaceful – aptly for Lady Day, surely. The relative prominence of the acoustic guitar creates a contrast with most of the other music on the album.

For prospective listeners daunted by expectation of four electric guitars, it would probably be best to start by listening to ‘Najwa’ and ‘The Empress’, before tackling the other tracks.

Najwa and Solo were released simultaneously by the Finnish independent TUM. Both are major releases, full of rewarding music, and both are handsomely produced, including extensive notes, photographs of the musicians and reproductions of striking paintings by two Finnish artists, Ole Kandelin (1920-1947) and Max Salmi (1931-1995). Both albums are enthusiastically recommended, being made up, like the best of Smith’s work, of music which neither ignores nor merely repeats the music of the past, but re-invigorates (rather than re-creates) it. Smith is a player and composer whose work doesn’t cultivate ‘originality for its own sake, but it profoundly original in the full and complex sense of that word. Well into his seventies, Smith’s creativity and instrumental vigour are still very potent.

If I had to choose between the two albums, my vote would probably go to Solo, purely because, of the musics re-made by Smith, Thelonious Monk is more to my taste than the electric jazz of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman or Ronald Shannon Jackson.

Glyn Pursglove

 


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