Wednesday, December 30, 2009

CD review: Wadada Leo Smith - Spiritual Dimensions

Another installment of something I want to talk about before 2009 is over.

Wadada Leo Smith
Spiritual Dimensions

This two-disc set came out sometime around October, but I didn't get wind of it until about a month and a half later, after I had submitted my Best of 2009 list. It took several listens for me to decide that Spiritual Dimensions would have been on that list had I heard it earlier. Like a lot of great albums, multiple listens are important because the depth of the music doesn't reveal completely itself right away.

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1960s Chicago and has gone on to release over 30 albums on his own (his Kabell label) and with other musicians and imprints.

Spiritual Dimensions presents him leading two groups as fascinating for their instrumentation as for what they produce. The Golden Quartet, the group on the first disc, includes Vijay Iyer on piano and synthesizer, John Lindberg on bass and both Don Moye and Pheeroan AkLaff on drums. Recorded at the 2008 Vision Festival in New York, they are the freer of the two Smith ensembles, in terms of rhythms and tempos. Even with two drummers, the music never gets heavy-handed, even when they get a little more spastic on "Crossing Sirat." At times Smith seems to act more like a catalyst, who leads the group, jumping in at points to add coloring to the proceedings. But even when Smith is unleashing wild smears and growls in the tradition of people like Lester Bowie, he's always doing much more than blowing free. These moments are often when the structure of the tune comes out and charts the piece's next move.

This approach becomes especially noticeable when listening to both discs back to back since the first ends and the second begins with the same composition, played by both groups: "South Central L.A. Kulture." Both begin the same way, with solo Smith emittings some long, lonely notes that he wrings dry as he forces them out of his horn. Gradually both groups morph into a funk riff, which Lindberg. on the first disc, anchors with an over-the-top wah-wah effect.

The bassist returns on disc two, along with AkLaff, but this group is decidedly more electric with no less than three guitars (Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, Nels Cline), with a fourth on half the tracks (Lamar Smith), along with another bassist (Skuli Sverrisson) and a cellist (Okkyung Lee). The four extended pieces (between 12 and almost 20 minutes) come from a show at New Haven's Firehouse 12, although the booklet states that Cline actually overdubbed his parts in Los Angeles, so purists could quibble about the not-totally live aspect of that.

Again multiple players don't make the music busy or in any way cluttered. In fact, try singling out all of the instrumentalists, and you're likely to get lost in the swell of arrangements which again speaks well of Smith's skill as a band leader. Guitars rise and fall in the music, adding countermelodies here, textures there. Look for the other bass and it often becomes clear that both are making a harmonized vamp.

An obvious reference for this set could be 1970s Miles Davis, which isn't a ridiculous assessment, since Smith has played in Yo Miles!, a group that pays tribute to that period of the Prince of Darkness' career. But this group doesn't go for as much of a heavy funk feeling as their predecessors. Sometimes they evoke the first spacey side of Get Up With It, but they play with more direction. At 19 minutes, "Angela Davis" doesn't have much in the way of dynamic shifts, but they go on an interesting journey with it. "Organic" starts with outer space string transmissions, gradually sets up a two-bass groove and includes a rubato Smith solo before closing out on the opening riff.

Sometimes when a musician has been around for a while and has been prolific, it can be easy to take them for granted, thinking that their work will always be there to explore. Wadada Leo Smith has definitely been a productive musician but hopefully this set will garner more attention and help the uninitiated to discover him. It's a good place to start with the trumpeter and it makes you curious to hear more about what he does.

1 comment:

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