Wadada Leo Smith – America’s National Parks – Cuneiform

A tribute to America’s shared legacies.

Wadada Leo Smith – America’s National Parks [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform Rune 430/431 (2 CDs), 43:13, 53:20 [10/14/16] *****:

(Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet, director of ensemble; Anthony Davis – piano; Ashley Walters – cello; John Lindberg – bass; Pheeroan akLaff – drums; Jesse Gilbert – video artist)

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith once again delves deep into the American psyche with his double-CD release, America’s National Parks, a six-track document which examines—and fashions musical portraits of—America’s National Parks but also other shared history and cultural facets. Like Smith’s previous releases, such as 2012’s Ten Freedom Summers or 2014’s The Great Lakes Suites, Smith uses his general album title as a touchstone and a thematic aspect for a larger canvas and viewpoint. To bring his compositions to life, Smith crafted a new Golden Quintet. Cellist Ashley Walters (a fixture of the Los Angeles classical and creative music scene) joins Smith’s longtime compatriot Anthony Davis (piano), bassist John Lindberg (who has been with Smith since the early 2000s), and drummer Pheeroan akLaff (who has worked with Smith since the late 1970s and Davis since the early 1980s). Artist Jesse Gilbert is listed in the credits as well, for his visual contributions to the CD packaging as well as to the group’s stage performances.

The expansion of what we might think of as a ‘national park’ permeates the opener, the 21-minute “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718.” The year reflects when the city was founded by the French. In the CD liner notes Smith states, “New Orleans was the first cultural center in America and therefore it produced the first authentic American music.” This extended piece is not a bright slice of second-line music, but rather showcases a darker serving of reverence to the music and people of the Crescent City. One thing noticeable is how Smith utilizes the cello, both as a lead instrument which adds a different dimension, but also the way the cello is employed as a melodic foundation alongside the piano, trumpet and bass. Over the course of “New Orleans,” the tempo stays mostly slow but sustains a measured swing due to Lindberg and akLaff’s supportive rhythm. There are times when the rhythmic movement disappears, and the bass and drums are absent, particularly when Davis stretches out with a free-flowing solo; or when the bass and cello duet in an ambient shift. Another departure from the CD’s subject matter is one of the shorter tracks, “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park,” which refers to the African-American musicologist, researcher, author, and teacher who initiated The Black Perspective in Music, an important and influential musicological journal on the study of black music. The nearly ten-minute number has a tender but also dissonant majesty which fluctuates between an almost free-jazz refinement and a stately chamber music tone. The first CD closes with the 12-minute homage to the earliest national park in the U.S., “Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872.” Here, Smith applies unison pitches to evoke the epic edifices of the park’s imposing mountains. akLaff creates a gently swirling percussive effect which mimics the wind through trees and mountain passes, and later the quintet escalates the tempo to shape a melodic ‘quiet storm’ to mirror the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera which vented two million years ago.

The project’s longest opus opens the second disc. The 31-minute “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC” is a multi-faceted sojourn into several aspects of America’s collective socio-cultural past. Smith explains the Mississippi is “a memorial site which was used as a dumping place for black bodies. I use the word ‘dark’ to show that these things are buried or hidden, but the body itself doesn’t stay hidden; it floats up. The river has been filled with these bodies, but these bodies carry forth the idea of humanism.” The music during the wide-ranging “The Mississippi River” is sometimes methodical, other times minimalistic, and juxtaposes solemn elements with agitated and riveting sections. Davis provides forbidding piano chords while Walters inserts portentously bowed strings. There are recurrent musical suggestions of impending hostility or cruelty, plus there is a broad and authoritative stretch of free improvisation which also hints at inhumaneness. The Golden Quintet conclude with two final cuts related to the national park system, the relatively concise, modernist “Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890” (at 6:48 the album’s shortest tune), which flirts with atonality and free improvisation; and the 15:23 “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890,” which deploys audacious, declarative auditory outbursts which comment on or allude to the park’s deep lakes, striking glaciers and what Smith terms “perfect examples of eternal beauty.” America’s National Parks honors the natural resources enjoyed by generations past and present (and hopefully the future), but also takes a wider stance to look at what is important to remember, maintain and continue to generate, whether it is a place of towering forests or ideas about race, religion or principles. It’s all a shared common bond.

TrackList:
CD 1: New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718; Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park; Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872
CD 2: The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC; Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890; Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890

—Doug Simpson

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