Wadada Leo Smith, with Jamie Saft, Joe Morris, Balazs Pandi – Red Hill (2014)

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Hot on the heels of a summit meeting called The Great Lakes Suite, Wadada Leo Smith is delivering on another meeting of masterful musical minds. Red Hill (out September 23, 2014 from Rare Noise Records) is the productive trumpeter delivering a great record simply by allowing those around him to help make it so.

Jamie Saft (keyboards), Joe Morris (acoustic bass) and Balazs Pandi (drums) have built up a solid history together just in the last few years under the Rare Noise umbrella, making records under the moniker Slobber Pup, Plymouth and Metallic Taste of Blood, with the former involving all three of them. Morris and Pandi also served as Ivo Perelman’s rhythm section for Perelman’s One (2013), featuring a rare turn of Morris on electric bass guitar. Each of these ensembles represented a distinctive approach to total group improv, and under Smith’s leadership, Red Hill is again a record none of its participants, Smith included, could have made individually.

But there’s no need to explicitly state that the performances on this album are all fully created by all four participants instantaneously — the lineup should make that obvious — however, everyone is taking more chances than they’re usually known to do, which I didn’t think was possible.

Pandi never keeps time, ever, while at the same time strengthening his ties to Morris. The restlessness the drummer brings about is relentless, maintaining a tension that pervades the sessions even during moments of starkness. He lights the match early on for slowly brewing numbers such as “Debts of Honor” and “Janus Face,” both of which explode into a boiling over cauldron of intensity following long periods of slowly mounting pressure. Oftentimes the Pandi/Morris subunit will form a stream of disquiet as the Smith/Saft front line forms a stream of solitude, with the two streams merging over time, usually on the side of disquiet.

Smith will sometimes set the initial tone for a performance, but not always, and will lay out for long stretches only to appear again at key inflection points of the song to signal a subtle change in direction. But every time he plays it’s impactful, whether with a mute or without, and he swaps out between the two modes often.

He emits some of the loneliest notes possible from a trumpet for the barren “Gneiss” in stark defiance of the rumbling rhythm section, leaving it to Saft to bridge the divide, which the pianist does with telepathic skill. When Smith agitates, as he does on “Arfvedsonite,” the sharp, resonating tone from his trumpet dominates the proceedings. He puts a lot of air into his notes during much of “Tragic Wisdom,” and the act of blowing hard to barely gets the notes out creates a tension the he’s able to create without needing to get loud.

Saft, on “Janus Face” and again on “Agpaitic,” dramatically flips over from piano to Fender Rhodes, shaking up the texture of these songs. The first time it’s done he inspires Morris to pick up a bow and start sawing his standup bass and on the other tune, Morris has been vigorously slicing up notes with his pizzicato attack from the get-go when Saft’s electric piano and a few odd electronic effects throws the song into a psychedelic state.

As a pianist, Saft’s delivery can alternately be ruminative and visceral, and most crucially, he finds the appropriate times for either mood. For “Tragic Wisdom” he matches Smith’s individualistic approach with a beautifully original performance of his own, seemingly even getting inside of the piano to push the instrument’s capabilities beyond the norm.

Wadada Leo Smith albums rarely attempt the same thing twice but the consistent aspect across all of these works is Smith’s God-given ability to reach deep inside of himself with every puff of his horn. Leading by example, he inspired Saft, Morris and Pandi to reach even deeper into themselves as well.

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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