He first made records back in 1972 but at age 72, Wadada Leo Smith is only speeding up the depth and breadth of his four-decade creative spurt. Spiritual Dimensions, Heart’s Reflections, Ten Freedom Summers, Ancestors were all major pieces of work, darting from full chamber music orchestra on one project to a one-on-one duet the next. This trumpeter and composer’s cranium doesn’t seem big enough to hold all the genuinely unique and grand ideas that pop up inside of it.
With Smith’s latest sonic sculptures he unveils a new band, and this one should excite anyone who digs the wilder side of jazz instigated by the charter members of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Joining him this time are veteran bassist John Lindberg (the String Trio of New York), elite avant-garde multi-reedist, flautist and composer Henry Threadgill and hall of fame drummer Jack DeJohnette. Both Threadgill and DeJohnette go back to the late 60s with Smith, when the AACM was just spreading its wings and making Chicago an epicenter for creative, cutting edge jazz. With superstars in tow, Smith leads this group through the geographically-themed The Great Lakes Suites, due out September 16, 2014 by TUM Records.
“Lake Superior” from that upcoming album suggests that Smith has spatial, freestyle jazz in mind for this project, and DeJohnette has rarely sounded this unchained in decades. He mercilessly thrashes his toms amid a billowing mass of cymbals, and the Smith/Threadgill play their unison lines together between long stretches to allow the drummer and Lindberg hold things down on their own. Smith and then Threadgill both take their time articulating their solo statements, almost as cooling counterbalances to Jack D’s fire. It’s also been a while since Threadgill performed on record outside the parameters of his own esoteric harmonic inventions, and he assures us he can still deliver on alto with a wide open backdrop such as the one Smith conjured up for this number.
The future of progressive jazz is in good shape artistically with a lot of young up-and-comers poised to take the music form in exciting new directions. But listening to a performance like Wadada Leo Smith’s “Lake Superior” bristling with energy and dynamism, and I’m reminded that a few of the established masters aren’t ready to hand over the baton just yet.