Wadada Leo Smith – Spiritual Dimensions (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Born in the Mississippi Delta town of Leland, MS just a few miles west of BB King’s hometown of Indianola, Wadada Leo Smith didn’t pick up a guitar and started singing the blues but his mark on music ended up having a worldwide impact, anyway. After trying out the French horn, drums and mellophone, young Leo Smith settled on the trumpet, and embarked on a career playing, teaching and studying free improvisation and avant garde jazz; a path he’s steadily stayed on since. He eventually made his way up to Chicago, becoming a founding member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) there. He played in a trio with Anthony Braxton before Braxton became a star in avant garde circles and later headed up an ensemble that included Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake and Anthony Davis. He’s recorded and performed with a wealth of other heavies in his arena as peers, such as Derek Bailey, Jack DeJohnette, John Zorn and Henry Kaiser. Kaiser and Smith had joined forces about ten years ago to celebrate Miles Davis’ electric period through a series of adventurous albums named Yo Miles!.

Smith in fact owes much of his playing style to Miles; like the older master, Smith possesses an innate sense of note placement and playing the silence between the notes as much of the notes themselves. He’s got a full, rich tone that just short of Lester Bowie brassy. And while there’s are traces of the blues in his vocabulary, Smith has got technique by the bucketfuls; his breath control, mastery of sonorities and range exceed most anyone else wielding a trumpet who has come before him or since. His work has traversed the vast territory of the from the pastoral to the penetrating, and is as equally comfortable performing solo as he is with large ensembles. Along the way, Smith makes nods to styles of music both East and West and doesn’t ever appear to use them to make empty genre exercises, but rather ingredients to create new harmonics, new tonalities. Despite the complexities of the theories behind his music, in practice it comes off natural, and often accessible. Smith often sounds as if he is holding a conversation with someone, not reaching for some impossible note or making a bop run because tradition dictates to play that. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that the guy is visionary.

Through four decades of achievement, Smith has nothing left to prove, but his restless nature won’t let him stop. Now closing in on his 70th birthday in a couple of years, Smith shows no sign of slowing down. Just last October 6, Smith unveiled his second album of the year, the ambitious double-CD Spiritual Dimensions, a release from Cuneiform Records. Much as Ornette Coleman had given us two sides of himself on one album by presenting two distinct bands on it (In All Languages, 1987), so is Smith giving his fans more facets of his art. As Spiritual Dimensions was recorded live, we also get two discreet stage performances.

The first gig, from June of last year, showcases his Golden Quintet. This combo consisted of John Linberg on bass, Pheeran AkLaff and Don Moye on drums, and Vijay Iver on piano and synth. The second performance, from last April, featured Smith’s Organic band. That one was much larger and unconventional. There are no less than four guitarists: Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith (for two of the four Organic tracks) and one of our favorites, Nels Cline. There’s also two bassists: Lindberg again on acoustic and Skuli Sverrisson on electric. The band is rounded out by Okkyung Lee (cello) and AkLaff (drums).

The nimbler Golden Quintet is mostly acoustic and its abstract articulation uses sound, rhythm and silence effectively for improvisation that’s most likely scored, using the principles of Smith’s “Ahkreanvention” a system of music notation he developed in the seventies. Most songs go on for 12-15 minutes, as ideas are allowed to fully develop, but rarely repeat. “Akl-Ahdhilli’s Litany of the Seas: Sunrise” set the tone with a boiling cauldron of probing folk tones, Cecil Taylor swells (by Iyer) and unsettled African rhythms. Smith’s clear-toned trumpet cuts through the din like a spear, feeding off the band and staying above it. That sets the tone for the entire disk. “Umar At The Dome Of The Rock, parts 1 & 2” is a energetic showcase for the two drummers, whose paired rolling African rhythms marks one of the rare times the audience’s approval can be heard over the cacophony; the live performances were superbly mixed so that everyone in the band is well heard, while the audience noise is nearly completely extracted. The climax comes near the end, when a Smith uncorks a thrilling forceful solo on top of the relentless percussion which is in effect, soloing simultaneously.

Smith not only invites comparisons of his two bands, he practically forces the issue: the closing Golden Quintet track “South Central L.A. Kulture” is performed again as the first track of the Organic side. In the span of nine months and using contrasting configurations, Smith sculpted two opposing personalities for the same song. The first version begins with Smith’s unaccompanied, echoing trumpet musings for about two minutes before the proceedings settles into a reggae groove for a while. Like the prior songs, however, the tempo and the character shifts through a variety of shadings. Iyer demonstrates a supple attack, quickly shifting from comping to all-out expressions. The rhythm section seems to be able to follow the leader’s changes with great accuracy, too.

Organic’s version of “South Central” shares the same basic key, but little else. In the latter version, Smith’s a capella performance lasts nearly five minutes before the rest of the band enters. AkLaff employs a shuffling funk-rock beat this time, and wah-wah guitars gently growl under the strong current of a deep groove. Smith spars gingerly with the guitar players, and eventually give way to them. A sinister, P-Funk bass line paces the slower but indestructible beat. This must be some lost track from Miles’ Complete Cellar Door Sessions.

“Angela Davis,” named after the civil-rights leader, continues with the vibe from “South Central,” as all 3 guitarists and the cellist compete for space with Smith, and managing to find it without cluttering up the sound. I like Lee’s prominent role in “Organic,” where she isn’t afraid to make the instrument sound more like a sax, and use it in service of the groove. “Joy:Spiritual Fire: Joy” percolates around a tremolo bass line that occasionally changes key. The raucous guitars and cello come in and out of focus, making leaving wide spaces for others to exploit. A peaceful, two-minute coda led by Smith’s hushed horn concludes the entire performance.

The idea behind Spiritual Dimensions is a grand and ambitious idea, but it’s also fairly straightforward. Wadada Leo Smith explains, “the experiment is with ensembles, as opposed to musical style and language. I use the same language. All of the music I ever write can be played by any one of my ensembles.” Smith’s musical v
ision is constant, but the way his band members react to it so differently makes the music a living, evolving organism. That’s hardly a new concept, but you probably won’t find anyone carrying out that concept any better than either of Wadada Leo Smith’s bands did for this album.

The video below is taken from the actual performance that appears on Disc 1 of this album, an excerpt from “Umar At The Dome Of The Rock”:


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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