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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Tania Caroline Chen & Wadada Leo Smith - Every Leaf (Self, 2021) ****½

By Stef Gijssels

Of all Wadada Leo Smith's incredible output, only a few are duets with pianists, such as "Interludes Of Breath And Substance" with Matthew Goodheart, "Twine Forest" with Angelica Sanchez, "A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke" with Vijay Iyer, and the albums reviewed by us both received a five-star rating. We could appear very generous, but I can only ask the reader/listener to check for themselves. 

In 2017 he released a quartet with Tania Chen, Henry Kaiser and William Winant: "Oceans Of Storms", in which Chen and Smith perform a duet, which was then described as "one of the highlights of the album for the purity of sound" of the piece. 

Now we find Tania Caroline Chen and Wadada Leo Smith for a wonderful duo album of piano and trumpet. 

Whereas the duo with Iyer was a more subdued, polished, solemn, streamlined and a little sentimental (ECM!), and the duo with Angelica Sanchez was more jazzy and dynamic, intense, unpredictable, angular, playful at moments, rebellious, Tania Caroline Chen's playing is more abstract, with a wonderful approach of gentle austerity, precise and not jazzy in her chords or phrases. Chen is a classical pianist, and her catalogue mainly consists of works by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arnold Schoenberg, Erik Satie and other modern composers, even if she also worked the free improvising pianists in the UK: John Tilbury and Steve Beresford. In her work, she moves easily between tonality and atonality, composed and improvised, inside and outside, acoustic and electronic, but here she performs purely acoustic.

The album was recorded in 2017 in a studio in California. All nine pieces, the titles of which refer to trees, were recorded in one take. Possibly that accounts for the natural flow of the performance, and its authenticity. Like growing trees evolving into branches and leaves, the improvisations move without pressure. This is not music that's crafted, but rather created organically, by two master musicians. 

Over the years, we've come to recognise and admire Smith's small ensemble improvisations: his trumpet resonates deeply, whether muted or not, with a deep emotional and spiritual component. He manages to lift every sound to a higher level, more meaningful, grand, majestic and memorable. 

Readers who have liked the duo albums with Matthew Goodheart, Angelica Sanchez and Vijay Iyer, will without a doubt also like this album. It's in the same vein, but not the same. Smith remains himself, with his unique voice, but Chen, like the other pianists, also has her own voice with a smart use of minimalism, silence, shifting harmonies and changes of intensity, giving a totally different colour and sentiment to Smith's playing. The result is different. 

The quality of the production is also excellent thanks to the capable ears and skills of our former colleague Ed Pettersen. 

Highly recommended. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp