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Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Wadada Leo Smith, Milford Graves, Bill Laswell – Sacred Ceremonies (TUM, 2021) *****

By Nick Ostrum

This year marks Wadada Leo Smith’s 80th birthday. It is also the year that master-percussionist Milford Graves’ died, just short of his own 80th birthday.

Beyond just this coincidence of birth-year, it is fitting that these two figures would team up on Sacred Ceremonies. Despite emerging out of different scenes and cities (Smith, an early participant in Chicago’s sharply abstract AACM collective and Graves finding his voice in New York’s jazz-oriented free music circles), both have since become legends in the free jazz world and have unapologetically and undauntingly pursued their own avenues of creative expression. Both, moreover, came into their own as part of a generation that struggled to get this type of music recognized as the high art that it is. On Sacred Ceremonies, they are joined by downtown bass and production guru Bill Laswell, who, at a sprightly 66, represents the subsequent generation, which took over after the loft scene dissipated and pushed the music further from the acoustic realms of Smith and Graves’ early days into darker electronic, dub- and rock-inflected soundworlds still influencing the free jazz experimentalism of today.

Rather than diving further into the biographies and discographies of these figures myself, however, I will leave that to the booklet that accompanies this set. Instead, let us move directly to the music.

Sacred Ceremonies is a three-disc collection of Smith duos with Graves (Disc 1) and Laswell (Disc 2) and a trio session with all three musicians (Disc 3). Along with the three-disc solo set Trumpet, it is the first of a projected six albums Smith will release through TUM this year in celebration of his 80 years (and counting!) on earth.

Disc 1: Wadada Leo Smith & Milford Graves

I have been listening to Milford Graves more attentively over the last couple of years, and especially since his passing in February. Recorded in 2014 and 2015, this captures Graves past his physical prime but before the amyloid cardiomyopathy took its toll. That said, maybe because of the physical limitations imposed by old age and his years of theorizing and performing, Graves’ playing is as curious and engaging as anything I have heard from him. Some of this is the duo setting. It lends space, and Graves fills it with his singular sense of rhythm (or concerted lack thereof) and his woody tunings. Indeed, it often sounds like Graves is implying rather than playing a beat, while spitting out endless sheets of coarsely textured polyrhythms.

From his earliest days in with Anthony Braxton, the AACM, or in his own solo expeditions, Smith has carved out his own singular space in such environments. His trumpet alternates between impeccable clarity and bluesy decay. One hears echoes of Smith’s celebrated work on The Great Lakes Suites, America’s National Parks, 10 Freedom Summers, and some other of his more epic releases from the last decade. That said, the context of such aesthetic decisions here is quite different, and he and Graves quickly establish an intimacy that is absent those more sweeping and soaring projects. Indeed, Graves keeps him grounded, both complementing and challenging him. In the process, he forces Smith from the more majestic apotheotic narratives of those other projects to more personal explorations of interiority and the beautiful imperfections of the human condition. The result is utterly mesmerizing.

Disc 2: Wadada Leo Smith & Bill Laswell

I was lucky enough to catch Laswell and Smith at the old Stone a few years ago. This disc reminds me of their first set that night, which my friend, who ended up loving the second set with the Najwa ensemble, observed sounded a little aimless. Maybe there was an overconfidence, or an overreliance on the power of their physical and sonic presence in such a compact space. Maybe they were just warming up. Whatever the reason, it sounds like a similar process is going on here. Disc II sounds like two legends jamming, just before for the big show when Milford will join them.

This disc also reminds me of a cleaner take on The Bells, a bass heavy collaboration between Don Cherry, Lou Reed, Ellard ‘Moose’ Boles (bass), and a few other Reed-men. Or, a pared down take on the aesthetics that underlay Dennis González’s Nights Enter, though this is much sparser, and the isolation of the bass, synth, and trumpet create the impression of incredible depth. It is engaging, but it is also somewhat meandering between shades of ambience, periods of pulsing grooves wherein Laswell seems finds his funk (Minnie Ripperton-The Chicago Bronzeville Master Blaster [what a tribute]), and Smith’s ethereal but ephemeral runs and yelps. This is good music, but somehow lacks the punch or the conviction of the discs that precede and follow it.

Disc 3: Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Laswell, & Milford Graves

This is the culmination. A quick glimpse at the liner notes reveals that Smith composed some of these pieces, though I have trouble distinguishing the composed from the improvised. (Some of this uncertainty on my part might derive from Smith’s tendency toward graphic scores, though I am not sure whether or how he used them on this project.) Laswell seems more inspired than on the second disc. Smith attacks harder and plays with more concertedness. Graves lays some unrelenting percussive groundwork on which Laswell constructs his dark, liquid atmospheres. Much of the time, the pulse of the bass drum and the bass guitar blend almost indistinguishably as Graves adds his tangent pitter-pat rhythms and Laswell, his plucks and wahs. It sounds as if the percussion and the electric bass are mimicking the gurgling and hushed energy of a swamp, creating their own unified ecosystem of disparate sounds. When turned low, it sounds like a disorderly drone, but when played at a proper volume, one can hear a music humming with energy.

It is out of this beautiful mire that Smith’s trumpet arises posing a shimmering contrast to the burble of activity. Indeed, the horn seems to cut through the water, the mud, the humidity, the fauna to fill the sky, only to dive back into the muck. It is this vining pattern of unsteady aerial dance and dive that unites these pieces. Graves and Laswell push and pull but play remarkably tightly. Smith weaves, wends, and breaks through the interweave at calculated will. Indeed, this tension between Laswell’s producer’s ear, which lends itself to smooth transitions and juicy bass lines, Graves’ heart-beat percussive rootedness, and Smith’s singular quest for the perfect tone (whether crisp, jagged, or dragged off into infinity) in the perfect place make this disc work so brilliantly.

NB: For those who fetishize the physical release, the packaging is sleek and the booklet includes some striking photos of the three musicians, including some particularly fine ones of Graves, to whom the project is dedicated. It also has pithy bios of each musician, examples of Smith’s beatific poetry and reproductions of some stunning reproductions of paintings by the Finnish artist Leena Luostarinen. This is one to own.