Wadada Leo Smith and Louis Moholo-Moholo – Ancestors (2012)

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In his relentless pursuit of unique sounds with real emotional depth, Wadada Leo Smith has for nearly five decades experimented with so many approaches, both in styles and configurations, and even in his seventieth year, he’s already led dates of a pipa/trumpet/drums trio (Dark Lady Of The Sonnets) and a quartet/quintet playing alongside a chamber music orchestra (Ten Freedom Summers). Before his 71st birthday, Smith will have yet another album out, and the restless artist goes from very big to very small.

Ancestors, Smith’s third release this year, pairs him with a drummer, something he’s no stranger to doing, the most recent trumpet/drums duo having come out just two years ago. The singular Ed Blackwell served as Smith’s foil on that date, the highly acclaimed The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer (2010), and Smith again chooses a drummer with uniquely artful characteristics for Ancestors, the South African veteran Louis Moholo-Moholo.

Moholo-Moholo has his own vocabulary that is complex, but broken into smaller discernable shapes, what Smith calls “micro-sonic fields.” Smith’s “No Name In The Street, James Baldwin” illustrates this modular approach rather well. Indeed, there’s hardly any hint of his South African heritage until the very end of the album, he’s an uncommon drummer even within the context of his heritage.

Moholo-Moholo often turns his trap kit into a tonal instrument, most evident on the lead-off track “Moholo-Moholo/Golden Spirit” and the beginning percussion strains of the twenty-five minute long “Ancestors” suite. “Siholaro,” the one track contributed by Moholo-Moholo, is a deceptively straightforward rhythm, but it’s a tribal type of rhythm usually played hard. Moholo-Moholo softens it, carefully modulating the cadence; without making big noise, he becomes just as strong of a point of focus as Smith’s solitary-sounding horn.

Smith, for his part, shows why he is one of the very best pure improvisational trumpeters in the world, especially when there’s little accompaniment. On the “Ancestors” suite, for instance, he manipulates both the resonant bell of his horn and mouthpiece to wring all sorts of sonorities through which to render changing emotions. Deftly mixing in staccato and extended notes and other times whispering through the horn, he can hold a listener’s interest over a long period of time with so little.

Ultimately, the selling point of this album isn’t so much about the individual performances, the real magic occurs from the two playing with so much sympathy for the other. During both improvisational piece, you can hear several passages where Moholo-Moholo will adjust his train of thought ever so subtly to account for what Smith is doing and amplify the trumpeter’s own statements. And conversely, Smith is always attuned to the drummer’s rhythmic patterns, carefully choosing his spots on or in between the beats.

Smith and Moholo-Moholo had first performed together in the 70s, getting back together occasionally since then. Unlike another special pairing, Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Smith and Moholo-Moholo had never made a record together until now. Ancestors makes clear that this duo has plenty enough rapport and ideas to justify an album. Or two.

Ancestors will go on sale around the world October 14, by Helsinki-based TUM Records.

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