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Monday, August 9, 2021

Wadada Leo Smith - Trumpet (TUM, 2021) *****

By Stef Gijssels

At the occasion of Smith's 80th birthday, Finnish label TUM releases some wonderful presents for all fans of the American trumpeter. Tomorrow colleague Nick Ostrum will review his trio performance with Bill Laswell and Milford Graves - "Sacred Ceremonies" - also on the same label. 

The second is a 3-CD box with over two hours of only solo trumpet by the master, with an accompanying 44-page booklet. Is this overkill? Is this really not too much? Possibly in the hands of lesser artists, but Wadada Leo Smith manages to capture the attention throughout. His style does not change much from already known solo albums: the music is magnificent, glorious, meditative, expansive, solemn, spiritual, human, ecstatic at times, deeply sensitive at others, it is welcoming, open-minded and open-ended, ... (please add other qualifiers and superlatives as you see fit). 

The album is not just a collection of existing improvisations. It was recorded during a whole week in the summer of 2016 at St. Mary´s Church in the town of Pohja, on the Southern Coast of Finland, where Petri Haussila, the label's owner lives. It is the only building to have survived and to serve as a reminder of the town´s medieval history along the King´s Road, which was the main road from Norway and Sweden via Finland to Russia for several centuries.

All the pieces are inspired by and dedicated to people the artist admires, beginning with Albert Ayler, but also Howard McGee, Miles Davis, Steve McCall, Leroy Jenkins, the author James Baldwin, Amina Claudine Myers and Reggie Workman. Next to musicians, he also gives a solo performance of his tribute to "Malik al-Shabazz and the People of the Shahada" - the name of Malcolm X after he became a sufi muslim - a composition that also appeared in a Golden Quintet version on "Ten Freedom Summers" (2012). It's interesting to compare both renditions. 

The tributes are combined or alternated with more spiritual suites, starting with the five parts of "Rashomon" (CD1), inspired by the 1950 movie by Kurosawa in which a murder can be viewed completely different depending on the perspective, "The Great Litany" (CD2), also in five parts, and then two suites on CD3: "Discourses on the Sufi Path" and "Family - A Contemplation of Love". It must be clear that the ambition of the album is grand. 

Of the 81 albums he released since 1971, this is only his seventh solo album. The other ones are: 

  • Creative Music - 1 (Six Solo Improvisations) (TMS Records, 1971)
  • Solo Music Ahkreanvention (Kabell, 1979)
  • Kulture Jazz (ECM, 1993)
  • Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik, 2001)
  • Red Chrysanthemums Solos 1977 (Corbett vs Dempsey, 2015)
  • Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk (TUM, 2017)
Smith has written music for all kinds of ensembles, from duets over jazz quartets, string ensembles to more ambitious orchestra music. While most of these endeavours have been successful and come highly recommended, the wonderful abundance of his solo playing on this album is a welcome change. Considering the nature of his music, his definition of the role of the artist to connect hearts and souls with the greater space around us ...

With inspiration,
Vision, and an elegant breath, the performer
Releases a message from the source
Through the horn.

The trumpeter pushes forth a
Music-field that pierces the soul and
Unlocks the hearts of the silent lovers.

In performance,
Secrets are unveiled through sound,
Rhythm, silence and space.

Creative music is expressed in the
Languages of the heart and soul.

The mystery of the Beloved
Is coded.

... the solo performance brings this role to a totally different level, more direct, purer, freed from the distractions from listening and adapting (which of course are critical in ensemble performances). The result is music brought to a degree of abstraction, clarity, sincerity and precision, transformed to what musical essence could mean. It is less about the social context of people performing together, and more about the place of the individual in the universe. Could it stand next to Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, in my opinion one of history's most majestic solo compositions? No doubt.  The music shares the same inherent tension of austere generosity, of measured abundance, of solemn euphoria, of human passion and religious spirituality, all delivered with virtuoso precision and depth. 

I can also refer the reader to the entire page that TUM dedicates to this album (actually the accompanying booklet in digital form), including comments on the different tracks by the artist, poems about his music and philosophy. 

Don't miss this one.