Friday, October 10, 2014

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith - The Great Lakes Suites

Wadada Leo Smith
The Great Lakes Suites

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has recently been composing large scale works. Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) was a four-disc set of compositions dedicated to the civil rights movement of the US. Last year, he released Occupy the World (TUM), which was written for a TUMO, a 22-piece improvising orchestra.

His latest takes as its subject matter the Great Lakes, located in the northern part of the United States: Michigan, Ontario, Superior, Huron and Erie. He has also composed a piece for Lake St. Clair, a smaller body of water in that area that is considered to be a great lake contender. The piece is also dedicated to saxophonist Oliver Lake, who Smith considers "another Great Lake."

The two-disc set doesn't attempt to capture the qualities of each lake in composition, so much as use the idea as a launching point. Besides, the significant thing about this music is the band that the trumpeter assembled to play it: Henry Threadgill (alto saxophone, flute, bass flute), John Lindberg (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). Hearing an A-list group like this is a rarity and everyone brings a great level of excitement to the work.

Smith, who has also lead a band devoted to Miles Davis' electric period, plays in a manner that recalls that trumpeter's approach, where simple, dramatic phrases can have as great an impact as faster, complex lines. He regularly blows long tones, occasionally splitting notes for extra dynamics. Whatever he plays demands attention.

Threadgill, who hasn't stretched out as much on his own recent albums, gets plenty of room to put his unique alto voice on display. His crisp tone combines with a gravelly set of ideas. His flutes add extra depth to the music, especially in "Lake Ontario," which is the one moment that seems to evoke a flowing body of water. The bass flute in "Lake Erie" begins with a rusty shriek, going on into rich solo filled with vibrato.

Lindberg often acts as the anchor to the music, keeping things together as his co-horts cut loose. But he also gets in some wild bowing, especially in "Lake Ontario." "Lake Huron" also gives him a chance to put down a groove, later in the piece.

Forget for a moment that Jack DeJohnette is behind the drum kit and his free flowing percussive work could be attributed to Famadou Don Moye or the late Phillip Wilson. While he's better known for his work as a leader and for holding down the tempo on classic albums by Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd, DeJohnette was involved with the AACM early on and he is fluent in this aspect of playing too. He impressively plays his first solo in "Lake Michigan" just on the rims, later moving across the whole kit with a frenzy, as Lindberg bows behind him.

The six compositions each last anywhere from 10 to over 20 minutes. They come with a loose, flowing feel, making them sound pretty spontaneous upon first examination. But each consists of different sections, with different instruments coming together or stepping back, moving into dynamic shifts that keep the energy at a high level. It evokes the spirit of the best AACM works, but with a newer focus or perspective on where the music is headed. Smith continues to be an engaging improviser, bandleader and composer.

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