Wadada Leo Smith
America's National Parks
"The parks are really something fantastic. The idea is purely American. It came out of American ideals. Preservation. But right now those right are being violated by Congress because Congress controls it and they use it as political hay to raise money. They sign out huge areas of it underneath to companies for wheat and all kinds of food growing things. So it’s a commercialization that we can’t really afford to have...It belongs to all Americans, living and dead and those that have come before."
Wadada Leo Smith told me all of that last spring, prior to his appearance at the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival. He was in the midst of recording America's National Parks, a two-disc set that features his latest suite, in six parts. It continues in a line of large scale compositions like Ten Freedom Summers (2012) and The Great Lakes (2014) The current one pays tribute to three of the country's actual national parks along with three places or people that Smith considers to have merit equal to the parks themselves.
His Golden Quintet for the session includes longtime bandmates Anthony Davis (piano), John Lindberg (bass) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums), along with newcomer Ashley Walters (cello), who adds a dynamic color to the music, working together with Smith's clarion trumpet work. While the concept of the music relating directly the subjects could be scrutinized and detailed, even without the titles and/or a background of each subject, America's National Parks maintains Smith's stature as a composer of powerful music that blurs the line between modern chamber music and free improvisation.
"New Orleans The National Culture Park USA 1718" opens the album with a multi-sectioned 20-minute opus. A rigid groove eventually gets more steady as Smith's muted trumpet solos over it, followed by cello and piano. His crisp horn work could keep going, but just past the half-way mark, following a Lindberg solo, the groove break into free time, which Davis, Lindberg and Walter all use with vitality, before restating the opening theme.
"Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park" takes its inspiration from the African-American musicologist who founded the journal The Black Perspective in Music, from which Smith has written. While not as long as the preceding track, its nine minutes still arrive with great detail, with beginning with rich long tones that are Smith's calling card.
"The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River - a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC," which begins the second disc, is the longest section, with over 30 minutes of ruminations. The first half of the track feels slow and contemplative with steady drum crashes, droning and then searing cello and bass, then spareness. Midway in, the band sets up a vamp, and Smith jumps on top of it, blowing powerfully.
The three other tracks take their names from actual parks: Yellowstone, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. Of these, the closing "Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890" (all the titles are a mouthful and must frustrate writers who have to abide by a word count) has some of the most exciting moments of the whole disc. Smith stands alone following the opening theme, playing what almost sounds like an elegy, asking listeners to take his beliefs to heart, like the ones stated in the quote above. After some ringing piano chords and droning cello, akLaff takes an extended solo that also feels thunderous and joyous. The visceral and complex solo can make you want to hear more of the drummer's work.
Wadada Leo Smith's work asks quite a bit from listeners: time, open ears, understanding of, and empathy for, the inspiration for the material. But by following this lead, he not only delivers music heavy with a message and content, he shows how his compositions connect to things beyond the performance stage or the CD player. "Music is like air, you know. It pervades the whole space around the earth," he said in our interview.
America's National Parks is proof positive of that deep connection between air and music. While that might sound like flaky idealism to a cynic, it rings true in light of the way our environment is treated these days too.