Monday, August 03, 2009

CD Review: Warren Smith Composers Workshop Ensemble

Warren Smith Composers Workshop Ensemble
Old News Borrowed Blues (Engine)

Drummer/percussionist/composer Warren Smith brought together 14 musicians plus himself to record these five brilliant pieces. Five saxes, four brass, guitar, African percussion and two drummers sound like the next generation of the Sun Ra Arkestra, although their influences stick with the various inhabitants of Planet Earth, rather than pulling more inspiration from the cosmos.

"Rivers State Suite" consists of a three-part tone poem inspired by villages Smith visited in Nigeria and the songs griots sang there about their cities. Vibes set up a dreamy mood over reggae groove in the first part before the lower horns come in with a folk-like melody. The laid-back feeling shifts into a more urgent tempo for part two, where the harmonies go to church. The third movement is built on an equally simplistic riff, but the way the percussion kicks it along and the way Smith layers the horns keep it exciting.

"The Hungarian Gypsy Song" also sounds true to its name, with haunting diminished chords, some gypsy guitar strumming and those dreamy vibes again. "Lock the Toilet Door" presents the group playing no nonsense hard bop, with a strong trumpet solo and a lot of fire from Smith and second drummer Lloyd Haber. "One More Like for Harold Vick," recently saluted by Sonny Rollins, pays tribute to the late tenor player with a theme that seems more like an emotional rendering than an attempt to emulate his style. Sounding a bit like a Mingus piece at times, it feels as if Smith is trying to explain the tragedy that Vick wasn't heard by more people.

Smith explains in the notes that "Free Forms 1-4" comes from a set of ten interconnected compositions that utilize free improvisation. Each is marked by a sketch of a theme, followed by free blowing, that eventually cues in a vamp. The final section features Smith, presumably, reading a poem over a slow waltz with Craig Rivers' soprano and the vibes moving behind him, with the rest of the ensemble adding some dark chords and a few well-placed honks and blats. Jazz poetry can be a scary (read - bad) idea, but Smith avoids speaking in the cliched poet cadence and the text ("a love song, sort of") sketches a thoughtful image that feels appropriate after the frenzy that came before it.

The only setback with Old News Borrowed Blues is that individual soloists aren't singled out. While the recycled chipboard cover includes notes from Smith on the music, it's not clear which drummer plays vibes (or if they take turns) or whether Cecil Bridgewater or John Carlton take the trumpet solos. Ultimately, that can be chalked up to nitpicking, though. With soloists that include Claire Daly (baritone sax) and Craig Rivers (soprano sax), and recent Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Jeribu Shahid as part of the group, this is definitely one of the strongest releases of the year and needs to be heard.

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