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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Wadada Leo Smith / Douglas R. Ewart / Mike Reed - Sun Beans of Shimmering Light (Astral Spirits, 2021) ****½

 By Gregg Miller

A live recorded performance of spontaneous improvisation from 2015 at percussionist Mike Reed’s venue Constellations in Chicago, this musical meeting of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart and Reed is a small treasure trove full of delights. The recording here is from the second outing of this trio.

A musician’s musician, Douglas Ewart’s long musical and working relation with Wadada Leo Smith goes back to about 1967, the early days of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. A next generation (is it the fourth?) AACM member since 2008, Mike Reed served as chairperson to the Chicago chapter from 2009 to 2011. In addition to Constellations he (with trumpeter Josh Berman) make music happen at Chicago’s The Hungry Brain.

Back in 1973, Leo Smith published a pamphlet (200 copies printed) on the AACM and creative music. He wrote: “technique for the improvisor is . . . a direct attunement with the mental, spiritual and mechanical energy necessary to express a full creative impulse. . . . it is the all-out goal to respond to the solo creative impulse from within which makes for the uniqueness of originality among all creative performers” (notes (8 pieces), source a new world music: creative music, p. 15). Smith’s sensibility lines up nicely with Ewart’s philosophy of music from earlier this year: “Improvisation is intrinsic to human life, survival, and THRIVAL. It must not be spoken of and dealt with like a thing apart, it rather must be encouraged, fostered, and wholeheartedly embraced if we are to take wings and soar in body, mind, and spirit. Improvisation is key to uncovering, discovery and invention” (Ewart, “Meditations for George Floyd & the Confluence of Covid, a New Paradigm,” by Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, NY, (accessed 2021/01/22)).

The proof their shared conviction in the spiritual and creative power of improvisation can be found in the Sun Beans of Shimming Light. This is a very affecting, moving album, though without the sweep or solemnity of, say, Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) or The Great Lakes Suites (Tum Records, 2014), and there are no live electronics as on Smith’s super-interesting Luminous Axis (Tzadik, 2002). A purely acoustic affair here. Douglas Ewert’s instruments are not listed, though at a guess, he is playing bassoon, English horn, bamboo flute, and sopranino saxophone. Ewart’s highly expressive didjeridu doesn’t show up; for that you’ll have to listen to his brilliant Songs of Sunlife: Inside the Didjeridu (Innova, 2004), or catch him with dancers here. On drum kit, percussionist Mike Reed’s basic modus operandus is to lay back and let the big guns do their thing. He lays down some attractive underflooring, but is most often a colorist to the horn players’ instant melodies and storytelling. The playing overall is mostly relaxed, soulful, and tuneful; they also rise occasionally into strident, statement mode on the power of Wadada Leo Smith’s horn.

“Constellations and Conjunctural Spaces” (track 1) is an almost 16 minute mini-suite, and the best example here of the trio at work. The next 3 tracks mostly feature shifting duos and solo work, with the trio concept taking a back seat. This track opens as a trumpet/bassoon duo with a semi-classical vibe. They seek and find common tones and work off of variations. All formality and patience. Reed enters about 4 minutes in, and the energy begins to turn. Snare rolls, snarls, dissonance, trilling, some intense parlay and note cycling in the vein of Roscoe Mitchell when Ewart changes instruments to what sounds like an English horn or a shenai.

Both horn players channel and communicate so much character! Mike Reed plays as a slightly more laid back Andrew Cyrille in his sensitivity and touch. As Reed gives percussive direction to the trio, the mood opens, and the horns experiment with pitch and timbre rather than matching intervals. An ordered cacophony, Smith throws down note clusters, Ewart works intensities of vibration or snaking lines from which emerge snippets of song, blaring outbursts, and then a retreat to classical phrasing. Ewart can do it all, it’s just a question of curating among his wide-array of tools. Smith’s playing is more singularly evocative, never quite departing from a tone which is his personal voice (to my mind is like him standing over a valley delivering a call to common prayer that says,“Hey, you, get with it”).

Track 2 (“Sun Beans of Shimmering Light”) opens with hard-hits on a prayer bell lingering and Smith’s characteristic long lines. Resonant crashing pangi shells and clutter, then cymbals and brushwork on snare. Ewart enters 3 and half minutes in for a very expressive bamboo flute over Reed’s brushes. Both horn players are such masters of producing their own melodies on the fly. Smith re-enters and a romantic dance between flute and muted trumpet takes the tune to its ending.

Track 3 (“Super Moon Rising”) begins with African thumb piano played probably by Smith, who put the mbira to such good use on his version of Love Supreme (on his virtually peerless record, Kulture Jazz (ECM, 1992)). He soon moves to an extended trumpet-percussion duo with Reed playing mallets on toms and cymbals, and then a tempo forward snare. From patient calm to anxious and bold. Ewart enters, at first with a throbbing undertow as Smith continues to make his statements over busy drumming. Things subside, and with some lilting phrases of Ewart’s sopranino sax, Smith bows out and Reed offers up a swinging rhythm over which Ewart’s ringing, intervallic cycles take the tune out.

Track 4 (“Unknown Forces”) opens with solo trumpet traveling from elegiac to guttural and back again, one musical thought after another patiently, thoughtfully delivered. With a hint of reverb, Smith’s personal, distinctive sound. Legato ruminations; then splat, splat, spitting. Five minutes in, Reed enters with ride cymbal hits, signaling a change. Ewart’s turn to solo. Ewart fills his English horn to capacity, you can feel the vibrations. Long notes, full-bodied, resonant, unadorned. Such cerebral and spiritual players.

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Gregg Miller said...

I am listening now to track 5 on the 1977 record *Old and New Dreams* with Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman. The *Sun Beans* record is a continuation of that spirit. -- Gregg

Markus Breuss said...