Monday, November 14, 2011

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith - Heart's Reflections

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic
Heart's Reflections

Wadada Leo Smith dedicated each of the four lengthy compositions on Heart's Reflections to a different musician or artist, although the music may or may not actually invoke the honoree's style. That doesn't detract from the power of the album. The trumpeter has once again brought together a band of electric and acoustic musicians, including four guitarists and two laptop "players," and created music that rolls along without excess. In fact, the group sounds a little more streamlined and focused than they were on 2009's Spiritual Dimensions, which was good but got a bit noodly by the end.

"Don Cherry's Electric Sonic Garden" is built on a fuzz bass riff, anchored by both John Lindberg and Skulli Sverrisson. This groove plays into the comparison to electric Miles Davis, especially considering the way Smith uses a minimal number of trumpet notes to say a lot (and his recordings with Henry Kaiser that pay tribute to Davis) but a lot of things differentiate this group. The groove is straight, without any extra rhythms over top. Pheeroan akLaff's drums sound more like a rock kit throughout the album, due to way he tunes his bass drum so low and lets it resonate. Smith sounds more gruff than Miles, and the way the guitars send out solar flares in the background adds a unique trimming to the music.

After a howling guitar solo by Michael Gregory, the rhythm section drops out briefly around the half-way mark (10 minutes into it, by the way), before it returns with a slightly different vamp to accompany Angelica Sanchez's electric piano solo. That slight break, along with another guitar solo (from Brandon Ross) and some swirling psychedelic textures, keeps the whole thing consistent.

Smith's composition titles can be a mouthful, and "Heart's Reflections: Splendors of Light and Purification" also consists of 12 individual movements or tracks, which spill from Disc One onto Disc Two. (On top of that, it's dedicated to one Shayk Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili.) There are moments in this piece where Organic sounds a bit like Prime Time, had that group all operated on the same melodic page. Some sections consist of Smith and akLaff going at it, some have an eerie group of sounds that could be either guitars or laptop noise adding to the suspense.

"Silsila," which opens the second disc, gives akLaff plenty of room and he uses it to play a solo that recalls Elvin Jones' masterful opening to "Pursuance" on A Love Supreme. His thundering crashes morph into press rolls and cymbal splashes that energize the quick rubato theme the group plays. The final two movements of the piece feature the best Smith solo on the whole session. His tone is loud and crisp, and here he plays with the bright authority of a classical trumpeter. It makes you appreciate both the depth of this composition and proves that Smith ranks high in the pantheon of jazz trumpet players. Or at least that he should.

"Toni Morrison: The Black Hole (Sagittarius A*), Conscience and Epic Memory" might be the longest title here, but at 10 minutes, it's the shortest track. It begins with some wild group noise, in a continuation of the previous piece's final moments, it seems. From there, it pulls back for some drones and sputters from the laptops and some violin scrapes before Sanchez plays an understated piano solo that slowly brings the group back in.

"Leroy Jenkins's Air Steps" pays homage to the late violinist with a 22-minute piece that alternates loud, full band sections and quiet lyrical passages. Smith should be commended for leading such a heavy group that can blow freely without ever getting too busy or heavy handed. While it's hard to single out each and every string player, they don't step on each other's feet either. A few quick stops and starts in the music indicates that this clarity isn't merely left to chance. These players are in tune with Smith's vision. More of those ghostly textures creep up behind his lyrical trumpet lines and Gregory creates some Fripp-like string attacks during his solo.

People with shorter attention spans might find the track listings on Heart's Reflections a big daunting, but it's easy to lose sense of time in this music, due to its power.

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