Saturday, November 25, 2017

CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith- Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk/Najwa

Wadada Leo Smith
Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith continues to produce new works at steady clip, paying tribute to past masters through original compositions which, in the case of the first album, are balanced by select works by Thelonious Monk. Leave it to him to interpret the great pianist in a solo trumpet recital. The second album, while deeply rooted in the sound of electric jazz from an earlier period, also rises high in both execution and energy.

An entire album of just one instrument will always challenge the listener, unless the instrument is the piano. My attraction to them lies in the wonder of how the performer is operating - whether they hear a rhythm section or any kind of accompanist in their head, whether the path forward is clear or tangled. With the four Monk compositions on Solo, the listener has the advantage of knowing how the music could sound, and to investigate how Smith works with it.

He picks four of Monk's ballads for examination: "Ruby My Dear," "Reflections," "Crepuscule with Nellie" and the old classic "'Round Midnight." Smith, like Monk a very economical player in terms of how many notes are needed, takes his time with these themes. "Ruby My Dear" sounds like an intimate, romantic conversation. For as many times as we've heard "'Round Midnight," Smith's honest rendition comes feels passionate and gives it with an original stamp. Knowing that he's all alone with the other two tracks, at least one of which ranks as my personal favorite, the trumpeter unleashes all the nuances that make them such great songs.

Monk was always praised for the way he used space in his solos and Smith follows the pianist's lead in the four originals. Each has a typically lengthy Smith title, touching on different aspects of Monk's colorful life. The best of these would have to be "Monk and His Five Point Ring at the Five Spot Cafe" and "Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium - A Mystery." The latter - inspired by a dream Smith had about the two pianists visiting the ballpark during a return visit Powell made to New York after it had been built - moves along steadily, straddling open space with as Smith follows a course he has charted, eventually reaching some high long tones, which he naturally executes with his impeccable tone. In the "Five Spot Cafe" piece, he moves between low and high flutters, with more long tones in the upper register. It might not put the listener in the Five Spot, back when Monk and John Coltrane were coming into their own, but that's not the idea. Maybe it's not an easy listen either, but Solo certainly has an absorbing quality overall.

It says a great deal about Smith's skill as a bandleader that he can include four guitar players in a band that compliment and add to the sound rather than getting too busy or turning the sound into a harmolodic mudbath. Najwa features Michael Gregory Jackson (who once released an album on ESP that included Smith), Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross and Smith's grandson Lamar Smith all on guitars. Pheeroan akLaff is on drums, with Adam Rudolph on percussion.

The most eccentric element of the group is not the leader's brash trumpet, cutting a path through all those strings and multi-directional rhythms, but bassist Bill Laswell. His flanger effect takes things back to the '80s, with a sound that evokes both the fusion albums of that era as well as English punk bands that were playing what would officially be considered goth music in the following years. It isn't the type of bass one might expect piece paying homage to John Coltrane, and while it makes sense in works dedicated to Ornette Coleman and Ronald Shannon Jackson, the rubbery sound takes some getting used to.

But what a sound it is. Aside from the title track - a three-minute work with muted trumpet and droning backgrounds, dedicated to a lost love - each work has a lengthy title and lasts at least 10 minutes, moving through different sections. "Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Musi and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme" begins free, later reshaping into a mid-tempo funky vamp. One of the guitars sounds like a phantom saxophone flutter-tonguing from beyond. Several brief guitar solos pop up, with each player respecting the space among the others.

The tribute to drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson delivers some of the album's strongest music. Drummer akLaff sounds at first like he's playing freely but as it proceeds, it becomes clear that he's setting a tempo, albeit one with a highly complex foundation. Smith and one of the guitars state a theme while the rest of the band rolls along underneath them. After this energetic display, "The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers" works as the perfect closing statement, a subdued tribute to Billie Holiday with some acoustic guitars in it.

Najwa can be just as challenging as Solo and even more enthralling. Both need to be heard.

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