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Monday, September 18, 2023

Wadada Leo Smith - Fire Illuminations (Kabell Records, 2023)

By Stef Gijssels

For his 80th birthday celebration of last year, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith assembled a new band, the "Orange Wave Electric", a new ensemble next to his prveious "Golden Quartet/Quintet" and "Great Lakes Quartet".  This ensemble sounds like a rejuvenation musically, away from the very ambitious, complex and almost classical music of the last years, back to the more rock and fusion oriented sound of "Yo Miles". 

Next to Smith, the band consists of electric guitarists Nels Cline, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith, electric bassists Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs, electronic musician Hardedge, percussionist Mauro Refosco, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. The full band performs on the two longest tracks, the opener "Ntozake", dedicated to American playwright and poet "Ntozake Shange", and the equally long "Tony Williams" dedicated to the great drummer. From the very first notes the tone is set: an mid-tempo infectious rhythmic foundation that allows for the trumpet and guitars to solo, much in the same vein as on Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew'. The music is heavily post-produced in the studio, with added accents, heavy chords at times, dramatic bass-lines with many layers of guitars and electronics dubbed as background, adding density, but that does not the diminish the boyish joy of your servant for this back-in-time musical experience. 

Smith's trumpet shines of course, whether by its jubilating incantations or meditative contemplation, and even if you may think you have heard all this before, that's possibly true to a large extent, but then again, it's so good that it does not really matter. 

Two of the tracks are dedicated to boxer "Muhamed Ali", not only for his boxing skills and achievements, but also for his political stance and humanity. 

The last track evokes Muhamed Ali's fight against George Foreman in 1974, better known as "The Rumble in the Jungle". It starts with tentative and angular sonic bits, but once the drums and the trumpet fall into a steady groove, the fight is going on in full force. 

All compositions remain in a moderate tempo, developing the long pieces, full of shifting colours and tones, a kind of musical kaleidoscope, full of slow energy and measured power. 

A treat.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Qasim Naqvi, Wadada Leo Smith, Andrew Cyrille - Two Centuries (Red Hook Records, 2022)

Last year, Wadada Leo Smith and Andrew Cyrille also participated in this album by Qasim Naqvi, who is known from his work as the drummer in the "Dawn of Midi" piano trio, whose first album from 2010,  called "First", is easy to recommend. 

On this album, Naqvi primarily plays modular synth, and drums only on two of the eleven compositions. The synth sets the tone, sometimes accompanied by the trumpeter and drummer, sometimes not, in easy soundscapes, that are usually long and stretched, the easy backdrop for Smith's melancholy trumpet and Cyrille's to-the-point accentuations, yet sometimes the atmosphere is a little more upbeat as in "Sudden Upbeat" and "Palaver". 

I have mixed feelings about this album. On the one hand because Wadada Leo Smith and Andrew Cyrille accepted to participate in music that is very non-committal, staying on the safe side without any clear artistic vision, on the other because they do participate in this project, demonstrating their willingness for new endeavours and new contexts.  

But it might be that something fundamental escapes me: the album actually was the Winner of the 2023 Deutscher Jazzpreis in the Best International Album of the Year category. Here is the jury's motivation: "The album „Two Centuries“ by Wadada Leo Smith, Andrew Cyrille and Qasim Naqvi convinces with its top-class trio line-up, whose sensational combination of modular synthesizer, drums and trumpet is unique. The unusual use of the instruments and especially the use of electronic sounds leads the music to a transformation from which unprecedented musical worlds emerge. The great musicians Andrew Cyrille and Wadada Leo Smith collaborate with the young electronic musician Qasim Naqvi to create soundscapes of great audible expanse. This overwhelming sonority in music breaks cultural boundaries.

I think my opinion is clear. If you have to spend any money on a recent Wadada Leo Smith album, let it be for "Fire Illuminations". 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Listen to Ntozake, the first track of "Fire Illuminations"


Paul said...

"Illuminations" is quite simply great.