Wadada Leo Smith's
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New York Times
Saturday December 3, 2005

by Nate Chinen

Wadada Leo Smith
and Alan Kushan
Merkin Concert Hall

More than most jazz musicians, the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has pondered the confluence of world music and jazz improvisation. He has a theory about it, in fact, and a system of hieroglyphic notation to match.

"Tabligh," a suite Mr. Smith has composed with Alan Kushan, a figure in avant-garde world music, harnesses a few of those ideas for a modern take on Persian classical music and Sufi devotional practice. The piece, which had its premiere on Thursday night at Merkin Concert Hall, had the feel, of something loosely dictated rather than meticulously prescribed.

Experimentalism is the bridge between Mr. Smith, a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative, Musicians, and Mr. Kushan, a cosmopolitan instrument 'maker and composer. Each led his own ensemble at Merkin, making for a rather literal illustration of jazz meeting world music.

Mr. Kushan's group, Rumi's Disciple, sat on a platform on one side of the stage; Mr. Smith's Golden Quartet took up the other. A similar sense of separation pervaded the suite, which included a handful of cross-fades from one ensemble to another.

Rumi's Disciple set a meditative mood in the first movement, "The Olive Pyramid." Amir Koushkani sang with a warmly appealing tone and fingerpicked percussively on his tar, a banjolike lute. Proper percussion duties went to Sam Schlamminger, on the daf, or frame drum, and Shane Shanahan, on shakers, bells and cajon, or box drum. Mr. Kushnan used tiny mallets to strike his self-customized santur, a dulcimer augmented with strings normally used in pianos, harps and harpsichords; he teased out a kaleidoscopic range of sounds from buzzing drones to a rubber-band twang.

Mr. Smith, who has quite an arsenal of expressive devices himself, preferred a pristine sonority through much of the suite. Making his entrance in the second movement, he affected a wounded tone that evoked Miles Davison "Sketches of Spain." It was only during a later interlude that Mr. Smith veered into piercing squeals and sputtering guffaws, and even then, he kept his technique under strict control.

The rhythm section evinced comparable discipline. Vijay Iyer rumbled around the piano's lower register and stabbed at its higher reaches, but with hair-trigger attunement to the climate of the ensemble. John Lindberg subjected his bass to a litany of slaps and slurs. And Nasheet Waits, the drummer, busied himself with texture, often gently undercutting the rigid patterns of Mr. Schlamminger, his hand-drumming peer.

There were moments that fully engaged the double ensemble, achieving complex roar. But it was always clear which half of the stage was more comfortable with improvisation. The suite's final movement showcased the Golden Quartet alone, and outshone all that preceded it. Mr. Smith and his colleagues dived into the open space with a furious sort of clarity, as if finally impelled to speak freely. Their stirrings culminated in a monumental exertion, by Mr. Waits; he concluded the solo, and the evening, with a downbeat crash that needed no translation.

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