One Track Mind: Wadada Leo Smith's Organic – "Don Cherry's Electric Sonic Garden" (2011)

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photo: Scott Groller, courtesy of Cuneiform Records

The music of Wadada Leo Smith, no matter the setting, is spiritual, mesmerizing, purposeful and often dense. We found out back toward the end of ’09 just how dense his music can be when this innovative trumpet player debuted his Organic ensemble on disc 2 of the Spiritual Dimensions. That group sported four … four! … electric guitarists, as well as two bassists, a cello and drums. That group performed just four tracks, live at New Haven, CT’s Firehouse 12 studio/performance space. But the songs ran 12-19 minutes a piece, and these extended jams were also vehicles for Smith’s unique song structure, which to my ears contains a lot of elements of modal jazz.

From a sonic perspective, it’s impossible for Organic to escape comparisons to electric Miles from 1970 to 1975, and by proxy, Smith’s Yo! Miles collaborations with Fred Frith. Organic, though, goes further than that. With this group, Smith seems to be giving us an educated guess where Miles would have taken his band had he not promptly retired in the summer of 1975 and laid off for five years. We’ll never know, natch, but this game of “what if” is a worthwhile artistic endeavor and very few, I believe, have the wherewithal like Wadada Leo Smith does to pull this off.

On May 17, Smith followed up on that one CD side of Organic with two more. Heart’s Reflections is a bigger, badder Organic, too: fourteen members makes this the largest of small jazz combos. The four guitars and two basses are back, along with drums, violin, piano, two saxes and two laptop players. Whew.

We can no longer tout the presence of Nels Cline—he was replaced by Josh Gerowitz on guitar—but Heart’s is actually a more focused effort. Two tracks run over twenty minutes but the remaining twelve are mostly ideas broken up into more conventional lengths. But there’s no breaking up the stellar mindfunk of that first cut, “Don Cherry’s Electric Sonic Garden (for Don Cherry).”

Named in honor of one of the many prime peers of avant garde jazz Smith had worked with, “Sonic Garden”’s growling guitar muttering the repeating figure and Pheeroan akLaff’s straight ahead funk-rock drums is a direct descendent of “Right Off.” The laptops step in to provide high register blotches and barely-noticed synth-like murmurs as Angelica Sanchez’s Rhodes adds colors. On this opaque wall of sound, Smith and his fellow soloists paint abstract figures on a sonor canvas.

Smith starts the improvisation, making nearly every move seemingly a contemplative one. His long, drawn out notes showcase that wailing, desperate tone of his, alternating with some fierce jabs (like the stingers he lays on us about 5:30 in). Michael Gregory follows with an effects-laden guitar that also conveys pain and release, culminating in a skronk that washes out with the drums to let the remote, eerie sounds hang over for a minute. When the groove returns, Sanchez’s electric piano has a go at it with broken dissonant chords, followed by Brandon Ross’s blues-rock wah-wah guitar. Wadada makes a few concluding remarks on his horn with which take the song out, placing long notes he tempers by going from muddled to clear and back to muddled again.

I can’t lie, that groove is the first thing that attracts me to “Don Cherry’s Electric Sonic Garden.” But in order to make it through 20:50 of a groove, there has to be something there to keep the song moving along and the interest engaged. That’s what Smith and his thirteen cohorts in the Organic band do so well in this instance. It’s a very fast twenty-one minutes.

Heart’s Reflections is released by Cuneiform Records.

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