Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suite (2014)

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The works of trumpeter, composer and jazz visionary Wadada Leo Smith has always been about breaking from jazz conventions, whether that lays in the bands he puts together, the subjects and scope of his ventures or the structure of the music itself. For The Great Lakes Suite (out September 16, 2014 by TUM Records) he does assemble a not so unusual trumpet/sax/bass/drums lineup, but since this quartet is made up of him, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Jack DeJohnette and fellow charter AACM member Henry Threadgill on saxes, it would be silly to think they got together to play conventional jazz.

There’s always a firm purpose to Smith’s albums, and this one is themed around the Great Lakes; one song for each of them, plus one more for the near-Great Lake, St. Clair. But you could be forgiven if you looked at the lineup for this project and viewed it instead as a summit meeting of progressive jazz titans. At least, that’s how I see it first and foremost. Over a half dozen Smith tunes stretched out over two discs, they play just the way old Chicago hands from the city’s burgeoning free jazz scene of the 60s would play: with a youthful abandon and shapes that borrow ever so subtly from African and RnB strains.

These are veterans with long, high-profile careers; the performances are going to be fantastic even if they aren’t going to reveal much new about any of the participants. Nonetheless, DeJohnette is the most fascinating of the four and not because he’s not doing anything that’s beyond his known, vast capabilities, but because he’s rarely heard in such a free setting. We were already knocked for a loop at his go-for-broke drumming on the advance track “Lake Superior.” He seizes a spot right alongside Smith and Threadgill for “Lake Michigan,” rolling with them and counterpunching against them but like the pair, uses space as another instrument. He commandeers “Lake Ontario,” setting into orbit a bowed bass solo from Lindberg and the pure-toned stabs of Smith’s horn. The constant restlessness he instills underneath “Lake St. Clair” often bubbles over to the top, and twice he sends the performance off in a new direction (the second one a funky dance that ends the entire album).

But one can only ignore the contributions of the other heavy hitters for so long. Smith, as is typical of him, invests emotion and like Miles, understands that heavy emotion more times than not doesn’t mean heavy playing; he imparts a lot in the notes he doesn’t play on “Lake Huron” as he does with the ones that he does. He doubles up with Threadgill to play a melody given depth with long-held notes, followed by Threadgill peeling off on alto sax to enunciate in a fractured, blues dialect. Threadgill plays very much like himself (the same hold true when he picks up the flute later on), but against Smith’s composition as a backdrop, it takes on a whole new personality. His wandering flute dominates the early part of “Lake Erie” amidst DeJohnette’s sparse coloring, but Lindberg’s nomadic bass sets the barren tone of the song throughout.

The vision behind The Great Lakes Suite is all Smith’s and a solid addition to his ample legacy, but Threadgill, Lindberg and DeJohnette add to that legacy simply by living up to theirs.

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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