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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith - Abbey Road Quartet (Treader, 2009) ***½

Wadada Leo Smith's second record for the Treader label is better than the previous "Brooklyn Duos", on which he plays duets with John Coxon on guitar and harmonica. The latter still plays guitar on this album, but the band is expanded with Pat Thomas on piano and electronics, and Mark Sanders on drums. Smith's powerful and meditative horn blasts are still the main feature over the long improvisations, which move back and forth between the gentle and accessible on the one side, and the fierce and abrasive on the other. This works well in some pieces, as on "For Johnny Dyani", the 18-minute long first track. This shift between approaches gives all the improvisations a kind of suite-like structure, as if the pieces are built around a preconceived concept: it starts with gentle piano and trumpet and gradually evolves into a nightmarish and unpleasant mix of violent electronics and dissonant guitar scratching. The second piece, dedicated to Coxon's brother in arms Ashley Wales, is more atmospheric with synthesizer-created string orchestra, melodramatic heavy piano chords, and bottle-neck guitar sounds. The third improvisation shifts to a more intimate sound of electric piano, light percussion and equally percollating guitar, with Smith playing sad muted trumpet, a short tribute to "Mongezi Feza", another South African jazz great. "For Grant Green" gets introduction by guitar and electronics, with dark and dissonant tones, totally unlike the great guitar player's music. "For Elton Dean" moves into more rhythmic playing, with disconnected short bursts of sounds, but more around the beat than on it, like many of the other pieces somewhat reminiscent of the electric Miles. I'm a great fan of Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, I like his playing, I like his openness to try new forms and to play in a wide variety of settings, it can only make his music richer. Yet again, to my ears the marriage with the electronics does not always work, not because of the electronics per se, but rather by how they sound here. I've said it before, take away the electronics, keep the trumpet, the piano and the drums, and I'm sure I will love this music. But that's the boring and unadventurous position of an old man. You have to leave the beaten track, and that's what these guys do, and they end up in a different place than I would have gone.

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