Wadada Leo Smith - Najwa

Label/Year: TUM Records, 2017

Lineup – Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Brandon Ross: guitar; Michael Gregory Jackson: guitar; Henry Kaiser: guitar; Lamar Smith: guitar; Bill Laswell: electric bass; Pheeroan AkLaff: drums; Adam Rudolph: percussion.


Trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith owns an inimitable avant-jazz voice and an out-of-the-box creativity that is patented throughout a prolific career. If last year he delighted me twice with A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (duo record with pianist Vijay Iyer) and America’s National Park, this year he strikes again with another couple of powerful albums, Solo Reflections and Meditations on Monk and the object of this review, Najwa, a bow to major American jazz artists.

The album’s acute bite comes not only from Wadada’s limpid sequence of notes, but also from quirky textures weaved by the four guitarists in service: Brandon Ross, Michael Gregory Jackson, Henry Kaiser, and Lamar Smith, plus the constantly ominous bass presence of Bill Laswell and the impressive, ever-adaptable percussive flow by drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. The rhythms are magnified by the actions of percussionist Adam Rudolph.

The duskily cosmic “Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms” is a transformational and explorative combination of distorted guitar acidity, dark and powerful bass lines, polyrhythmic disinhibition, and the shimmering phrasing of the bandleader. Passing the initial commotion, the rhythm becomes steady and the trumpet cries on top of atmospheric surroundings fed by recurrent bass slides and perplexing, multi-dimensional guitar innuendos.
With the unbeatable spirituality of A Love Supreme in mind, “Ohnedaruth John Coltrane” pays a tribute to the legendary saxophonist by sustaining a sonic liquidity that encapsulates assertive unisons, scattered electric guitar spasms burning in multiple effects, penetrating wha-wha bass licks, and brumous drum assaults. On top of that, Wadada’s stream of conscious improvisation, often encompassing long high notes interspersed with kinetic phrases, forces the rotation between fluidity and motionless. Midway, the rhythmic flow unexpectedly veers to a pacific hip-hop/funky groove that persists until the end.

Immersed in ethereal electronic ambiguity and reviving Miles’ muted trumpet, the short title track spreads balmy breezes before the band busts through boundaries that separate creative jazz and progressive rock on “Roland Shannon Jackson”, a tribute to the pioneer avant-jazz/free-funk drummer of the same name. Naturally, the tune’s epicenter is located on AkLaff’s unhesitating pulses with irregular hi-hat attacks, powerful tom-tom timbres, and colorful cymbal crashes. Notwithstanding, the tension that rushes out of the rhythm section’s constant charge contrasts with the tranquil melody.

For the last number, “The Empress, Lady Day”, the group abstains from the noir urban feel in favor of a fragile placidity. The composition, dedicated to Billie Holiday, passes a sensation of widely spacious due to floating harmonies and vague acoustic guitar rambles.
Even with four avid-for-action guitarists in the roster, Wadada eschews unnecessary clashes or insubstantial sonic transgressions. In turn, and taking advantage of all timbral possibilities, he takes us out of our comfort zones with unflinching, daring, and sculptural forms and sounds.

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms ► 02 - Ohnedaruth John Coltrane ► 05 - The Empress, Lady Day