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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wadada Leo Smith & TUMO - Occupy The World (TUM, 2013) ****½

By Stef   

If anybody received all possible kudos on this blog, with five star ratings galore, it's definitely Wadada Leo Smith, trumpeter, composer, visionary artist. He's equally restless, working on new sounds, new formats, new variations, new line-ups. There is musically hardly any comparison with his Tabligh, or with his duets with drummers, or with his more funky earlier work. Smith keeps reinventing himself, and only for that he deserves lots of credits. 

I hesitated to give his previous "Ten Freedom Summers" a five star rating, because the style of music is clearly not my natural taste, but then I did, because it was truly exceptional, daring, moving, and yes, as a reviewer, you can challenge yourself too. 

"Occupy The World" takes his orchestral concept a step further. Smith and John Lindberg, his long-term companion on bass, and a fantastic musician, meet the TUM Orchestra, consisting of musicians all close to the Finnish label, with many already appearing in reviews on this blog. 

The band ; Verneri Pohjola on trumpet and electronics; Jari Hongisto on trombone; Kalle Hassinen on horn; Kenneth Ojutkangas on tuba; Juhani Aaltonen on flute, alto flute, bass flute and piccolo; Fredrik Ljungqvist on  tenor and sopranino saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet; Mikko Innanen on alto, soprano and baritone saxophones; Seppo Kantonen on  piano; Iro Haarla on harp; Mikko Iivanainen on electric guitar; Kalle Kalima on electric guitar; Veli Kujala on quarter-tone accordion; Terhi Pylkkänen on violin; Niels Thorkild Levinsen on violin; Barbora Hilpo on viola; Iida-Vilhelmiina Laine on cello; Ulf Krokfors double on bass;  Janne Tuomi on drums and marimba; Mika Kallio on drums; Stefan Pasborg on drums. 

As the title suggests, politics and activism for a more humane world are the driving force and subject of the music. In five long pieces, this double CD delivers Smith's manifesto, one of struggle, conflict and clashes which are on almost equal footing with solemn, majestic and jubilating orchestral developments, of shifting nature and with lots of room for sudden individual changes for one or the other instrument, sounding almost like multiple natural identifiable individual sounds or voices emanating from a jungle or from a crowd or from an angry mob, but barely then disappearing again in the drone-like back-drop, to leave the place for the real voices on this album, the trumpet and the arco bass, with Wadada Leo Smith's soaring as the voice of the individual human, liberated, singing or suppressed and cyring in anguished and despair. 

There is no real theme to be discerned, not on any track, just layers of sounds moving forward in the same direction, like a broad stream full of swirls and twirls, sudden rapids and cross-currents and slower moments and movements full of intensity. It is never calm, there is always action going on of some sort, hard to describe, hard to grasp, hard to identify. 

And maybe it's this fluidity that makes this album so hard to review. I like being among the first to review worthwhile albums, but the words are lacking to even start to capture what I hear and feel while listening. On the surface, it all sounds pretty easy and straightforward : an orchestral backdrop supports the long trumpet solos. Or for John Lindberg, whose arco on "Mount Kilimanjaro" is as stellar and gripping as you can expect, played against a quiet orchestra that gradually starts gaining momentum and power and chaos, with the drums driving the screeching behemoth forward. But it's not that easy. The album has been in my car CD player for months. It's been on my computer audio for months. Listening, trying to get my arms around it, my ears around it. 

"Crossing On A Southern Road" has three ensembles playing different things, moving to foreground and background, crossing each other and coming together in full force near the end. Smith plays his magnificent tones on top and in line with the intersecting sounds. 

The title track is the longest one and ends the album, which contains two "black holes", "where the musicians collectively enter uncharted territories and are asked to find their way forward around the rim of the black hole", as the liner notes describe it. 

"Occupy The World" is not as sparse or spiritual as "Compassion", or as intricately complex and jazzy as "Tabligh", or as bluesy as "Kulture Jazz", or an ode to life like "The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer". 

It is ambitious, it is epic, it is without compromise, and it is at the same time heavy-handed, somber, full of drama and bombastic and grandiose sounds, designed to impress and to crush the listener. In that sense it reminds me of Beethoven's "heroic" period, with dark and overpowering sounds like his fifth symphony. It has a mission, rather than being the natural joy of sounds. Sure, I am not a Beethoven fan for that same reason, and probably that's the subjective hesitance I experience with this album. Yet Beethoven's fifth as a comparison, that's not bad. 

The double CD comes with a very extensive booklet and although we seldom mention the artwork, this one looks really great, a painting by Leena Luostarinen, reflecting the music's spirit quite well. 

Can be purchased from


Fergus said...

Sounds like another fascinating adventure into the big band format for Mr. Smith. I'm amazed at how he can organize so many musicians into (relative) order in a short period of time, and have them play together yet without compromise. He's definitely a visionary musician. I saw a parred down version (5 strings plus his Golden Quartet) of his Ten Freedom Summers orchestra in Chicago last month, just days after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. They played about a quarter of the work, but it never really got off the ground, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Wadada had some trouble getting Anthony Davis and Aklaff on the same page, in terms of volume and texture, but the main issue I found was the separation of the strings from Wadada, and he from the quartet - there was so little convergence, which rendered the concert closer to a moodscape. But Mr. Smith didn't have a conductor to help him out like he did on the record (money issues no doubt).

I guess my point is that this type of music is really difficult to pull off; and anything that does should be recorded, listened to and remembered.