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!