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Wadada Leo Smith
Tao Njia - Tzadik 7017 -
* * * *

Down Beat Magazine - April 1997 - vol. 64 # 4

Trumpeter and flugelhornist Wadada Leo Smith has been an infrequent recording artist since the years of Kabell, the label he ran while based in New Haven in the '70s. Smith's wonderful solo disc Kulture Jazz (ECM) appeared in '93, but otherwise his fans have had to satisfy themselves on reissued material on Black Saint and Chief, the rest of his important discography slipping into the vinyl museum. That's an awful fate for the work of such an elegant, often profound musician-early member of Chicago's AACM, now the Dizzy Gillespie chair at CalArts-but perhaps this outstanding record on John Zorn's fine Tzadik label will start to right the scales.

Tao Njia's three pieces are gentle, deceptively spacious compositions loaded with the gestural oomph of a master calligrapher. One might call them "chamberish," but that would be to miss their stylistic breadth, their Asian classical overtones and the force of Smith's soloing. "Another Wave More Waves" features.undulant bass percussion and frame drum, over which Smith paints lines in dashing strokes, his multitracked horns creating a contemplative interior monologue or bursting emotively into tonally static vibraphone and tubular-bell harmonies. "Double 'Thunderbolt' is a suite in six brief movements, dedicated to Don Cherry, whose influence is clear not only in Smith's horn playing and his multi-instrumentalism, but in the international scope of his musical vision as well. Two sections find Smith intertwining wood flutes with David Philipson, while on the first of two parts titled "Symphony For Improvisers" there's chiming percussion with poetry (writ and read, in English and Japanese, by Harumi Makino Smith). But the three sections of unaccompanied Wadada demonstrate why he should be considered one of the great trumpet voices of creative music: huge and open sound, ingenuity with different mutes, traces of Cherry and Bill Dixon (slurs, unvoiced air sounds), a signature distorted, flutter techniques, but also hearty melodic sense and wide intervallic leaps. The closing section, "A Falcon Ascends In A Moon-bow Lightbeam," is more scurrying, offering an energetic cadence.

Tao Njia's 21-minute title track is written for mixed contemporary chamber ensemble, and the California E.A.R. Unit gives it a warm, precise reading. Filled with delicate timbres, it is a measured composition; deliberate in motion, it's harmonically very sophisticated with clusters of activity that aggregate around held tones. Smith is cast as trumpet soloist, but he's integrated into the fabric of the sound (he also includes a short interlude of prerecorded thumb piano). At the 15-minute point, he and violinist Robin Lorentz engage in a heated exchange, while sustained vibraphone glows underneath.

Given such a rich and rewarding offering, it's a joy to have Mr. Smith back on the record-making front. Hope he's back to stay.

- John Corbett

Wadada Leo Smith
Tao Njia - Tzadik -
* * * *

San Francisco Bay Guardian Showcase for the Arts
Aug 14 - 21, 1996
John Shiurba

Since his emergence from Chicago's avant-garde jazz scene as a member of Anthony Braxton's group in the late '60s, Wadada Leo Smith has traversed a wide-ranging and far-flung musical landscape, from free jazz to world music to modern classical and even into reggae.

Smith's music, like Braxton's, owes at least as much to such European composers as Boulez and Stockhausen as it does to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Unlike Braxton, however, Smith has explicitly incorporated elements of world music, most notably through his use of African and Asian instruments and 'tonalities. In Smith's music, such appropriations rarely sound contrived; rather, they serve to augment the music's spiritual dimensions.

Smith is a trumpeter of redoubtable virtuosity, which he gives ample evidence for on the memorial for Don Cherry, "Double Thunderbolt" which intertwines solo trumpet statements, with the poetry of Harumi Makino Smith, backed usually by spare percussion with nohkan and bansuri flutes. The album's centerpiece, "Tao Njia," is essentially a concerto for solo trumpet. Smith is backed by the California Ear Unit, a six-piece chamber ensemble conducted by Stephen Lucky Mosko. The group creates a pointillistic web of sound, with each instrument adding rarely more than a few notes to create the whole picture. Smith's trumpet then weaves into the texture in a presumably (judging from the brief score excerpt included in the CD cover) partially improvised fashion. The music succeeds not only in melding two traditions that are often at odds but also in coming up with a result that is very personal and unique to its composer.

© 1997-2011 Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith