Wadada Leo Smith - Rosa Parks: Pure Love

Label: TUM Records, 2019

Personnel – Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Min Xiao-fen: voice, pipa; Karen Parks: voice; Carmina Escobar: voice; Shalini Vijayan: violin; Mona Tian: violin; Andrew McIntosh: viola; Ashley Walters: cello; Ted Daniel: trumpet; Hugh Ragin: trumpet; Graham Haynes: cornet; Pheeroan akLaff: drum set; Hardedge: electronics.


The creativity of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a dominant figure of the avant-jazz scene, boasts unlimited musical boundaries, crispness of sound, and resolute leadership. Besides mirroring these capabilities in his attractive way of playing, Smith is a conscious man and activist.

His new outing, Rosa Parks: Pure Love - an oratorio of seven songs - consists in a set of triumphal hymns presented like an extended suite and arranged according to his unique style and vision. Paying tribute to the iconic civil rights activist mentioned in the title, the album features a double quartet, three female vocalists, a drummer and an electronics wizard, as well as samplings of recordings by Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall, and Smith. It’s a philosophical type of narrative where the bandleader experiments his own musical language, Ankhrasmation, on top of the traditional oratorio form.

Segments and tunes are grouped conveniently, and “Prelude” opens the recording like a reveille, calling the attention for the civil rights through elongated trumpet notes in unison that soon take us to “Vision Dance 1: Resistance and Unity”. The latter’s tonal magnitude bursts in a magisterial chamber phenomenon. I appoint these dances as the most absorbing parts on the album, the ones with more focus on improvisation.

Vision Dance 2”, for instance, flexes and contorts, pulled by poised rhythmic undercurrents and electronic noises. Fragmented in the beat and slightly disjointed in the articulation, the tune aggregates excerpts from Braxton’s “Composition 8D” and McCall’s rousing drum work on Air’s “No. 2”. While “Vision Dance 3” is a chamber feast sketched with pre-recorded percussion, multiple muted trumpets, and flickering violin waves, “Vision Dance 4” is bookended by trumpet duets that show the bandleader playing alongside Graham Haynes.

The importance of the stringed instruments in shaping the momentum of the tunes can be observed throughout. Other highlights are “Song 3: Change It!”, which features an excerpt of Jenkins’ violin (“Keep On Trucking, Brother”), Karen Parks’ potent voice, and the inspired percussive jolts of Pheeroan akLaff; “Song 5: No Fear”, the only one featuring lyrics by Rosa Parks; and “The Known World: Apartheid”, where Smith is featured as a soloist.

Mounted as an Oriental folk song, “Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days: Fire” has Min Xiao-fen singing with operatic enunciation while playing the pipa with earnestness. The melodic sound of the violin confers it a yearning sweetness.

With quizzical parts and curious editing, this is a record with both polished and rugged chamber surfaces, feeling more earthly rooted when compared with the stunning America’s National Parks (TUM, 2016). Even less impactful than the latter, Rosa Parks: Pure Love breathes confidence and deserves attention for its musical and political statements.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Vision Dance 1 ► 06 - Vision Dance 2 ► 07 - Song 3: Change It!

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

Wadada Leo Smith - America's National Parks

Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Anthony Davis: piano, Ashley Walters: cello; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums.

Wadada Leo Smith, a gritty and lyrically stunning trumpeter/composer, releases a double CD stuffed with highly-articulated music that envisions to provide historic insight and social-political conscience about the America’s National Parks. 
Similar to what had happened in “The Great Lake Suites” (2014), each disc comprises three movements. However, the band Wadada enlisted for this project was an expansion of his dream-team of veterans known as The Golden Quartet (Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums), with the acquisition of the young cellist Ashley Walters, who adds a chamberesque texture and diversified colors to the organic divagations. 
New Orleans” is an incredible 20-minute piece that advances like an enigmatic dark dance, hypnotizing us with its quasi-theatrical inflections of deep dramatic weight. Lindberg and AkLaff do a superb collective job, transforming the tune into a sort of ritual that gains a lofty expressiveness through Davis’ uncanny chords and Wadada’s emphatic attacks. Later on, the cello transfigures this prior nature into a hearty moan.
In “Eileen Jackson Southern” the levels of abstraction and introspection are considerably raised. Wadada’s trumpet, frequently hitting long high-pitched notes, opposes to the cello-piano mosaics that occur in a lower register. “Yellowstone’s intro, configured by trumpet, piano, and then cello, takes its time to engage in a fantastic 4/4 groove laid down by Lindberg, a stupendous bassist who boasts a ravishing sound. Davis also deserves an ovation for his fast-moving right-hand approach while the bandleader’s bravura comes from the soul, not from the head.
The CD2 opens with the volatile 31-minute movement “The Mississippi River”, which takes us on a dark and mournful trip to a past of awes. After a while, it brings us lusty protests delivered in the form of cyclic harmonic episodes.
The shortest tune of the record, “Sequoia/Kings Canyon”, features Wadada in great interactions with his peers, especially akLaff during the final improvised section. The brilliant suite culminates with the sparse “Yosemite”, an exercise in contemporary chamber music.
Cerebrally structured and emotionally haunting, this is a literate masterpiece that will marvel not only the trumpeter’s followers but also the avant-gardists in general.  

Favorite Tracks:
01 (cd1) – New Orleans ► 03 (cd1) – Yellowstone ► 01 (cd2) – The Mississippi River

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke

Vijay Iyer: piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics; Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet.

When the highly sensitive chords and textures created by the pianist Vijay Iyer meet the pungent trumpet melodies of Wadada Leo Smith, there are uncanny sensations floating in the air.
Passage” displays a melodic cry over a dramatic foundation that inhabits between the beautiful and the dark. 
In “All Becomes Alive”, Iyer makes use of electronic components, introducing a 2-note bass ostinato. In turn, Smith exposes his impressive technique through exquisite and precise melodic phrases. This song becomes enchantingly percussive in its final section. 
Mysterious tones created by Iyer involve “The Empty Mind Receives”, where Smith uses a trumpet mute to express himself slowly and clearly.
Labyrinths” is a spontaneous avant-garde incursion that makes justice to its title, entangling us in grandiose piano/trumpet explorations. 
Spaceships, planets, and distant galaxies came to my mind in “A Divine Courage”, whose ominous vibes in the background give place to a ravishing cinematic atmosphere.  
Notes on Water”, despite the tranquilizing start and Iyer’s residual accompaniment on Fender Rhodes, evolves into a mesmerizing crescendo where Smith’s attacks can be compared to tumults of temper and emotion.
In this haunting achievement, minimalism and virtuosity are deeply interconnected.

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Passage ► 02 – All Becomes Alive ► 04 – Labyrinths