Wadada Leo Smith – Najwa – TUM CD 049, 55:43 [10/20/17] ****:
An electrifying tribute project.
(Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet; Adam Rudolph – percussion; Pheeroan akLaff – drums; Bill Laswell – electric bass, mixing; Michael Gregory Jackson, Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith – guitar)
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is no stranger to going electric. He used the power of being plugged in with his Miles Davis-centric Yo Miles! band (two CDs celebrating Davis’ music featuring guitarist Henry Kaiser), and the multi-guitar group Organic (with contributions from guitarists Michael Gregory Jackson, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith, Smith’s grandson). Smith has returned to the amplified, guitar-inclined format with the hour-long, five-track album Najwa (an Arabic word translated as passionate, secret or whisper). Smith is joined by all of the above-listed guitarists plus percussionist Adam Rudolph, drummer Pheeroan akLaff (he had a longstanding association with Oliver Lake and was a member of Smith’s New Dalta Ahkri ensemble and Smith’s Golden Quartet), and electric bassist Bill Laswell (who also provides post-production expertise).
Najwa is a many-layered conceptual work. Three of Smith’s four lengthy compositions (only one is under 10 minutes) are tributes to past artists of creative jazz and/or blues. The first two pieces are dedicated to geniuses of the saxophone: Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Each track is configured like a mini-suite. Smith explains, “On both compositions, I break it down to a quartet, with just guitar and trumpet, bass and drums. Each has a second movement within the context of the overall shape. They’re shaped like miniature suites within the context of a single album.” The 16-minute opener “Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: A Resonance Change in the Millennium” contains an intense impression of Coleman’s personality (think particularly of his Prime Time era). During the tune’s first half Laswell and akLaff present an assertive rhythmic foundation, highlighted by Laswell’s propulsive bass which avoids any resemblance of a concrete groove. At the same time there is a serrated melodic riff heightened by implosive electric guitars. The music shifts during the second half where an atmospheric, slower connotation is edged by Smith’s elegiac trumpet, ambient-tinged guitar and electronics, and Rudolph and akLaff’s lissome percussive effects. There is a similarly uncompromising sensibility which drives through the 14-minute “Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme.” There is a vigorous and adventurous rhythmic flurry, while Smith adds a serpentine melody. The electric guitars deliver a rush of intensification. After ten minutes, an otherworldly bluesy segment enters and an even but open-minded groove permeates which evokes early-‘70s Miles Davis.
On the fourth track Smith gets closer to his own history with the 12-minute “Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of a Rare Beauty.” Jackson (who died in 2013) had a long career which included collaborations with pianist Cecil Taylor, Coleman and Albert Ayler; was in the free jazz super-group Last Exit with Laswell; and joined Smith’s Golden Quartet in 2005. In the CD liner notes, Smith talks about Jackson, “I fell in love with his ability to tell stories, both through his drumming and otherwise. After he passed away, I wanted to do something that would reflect on my love and respect for him, to honor him.” The result is an unnerving and persistently metrical tune. Like they do elsewhere, Laswell and akLaff offer a feverish bass/drums surge, as the guitarists supply both loud outbreaks and oscillating noises tweaked by delay effects. Throughout, Smith plays stirring trumpet passages. Near the conclusion, the players craft a moody tier of pulsating bass, writhing drums, offset guitars and Smith’s echoey trumpet.
Smith finishes with a beautiful, ten-minute homage to Billie Holiday, “The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers.” This is an affectionate, meditative accolade to the great singer. “I’ve written more compositions for Billie Holiday than maybe any other person,” he mentions in the liner notes. “I have already recorded four or five pieces for her. This is the third one to be released and there are others to come. She’s my favorite topic.” The evanescent cut has a lyricism emphasized by acoustic guitars, akLaff’s pastel cymbals and brushes, and Smith’s flowing phrasing. The band achieves timelessness throughout, the sound one might hear wafting through the ether. It’s a quiet respite from the ignited material on the rest of the album. There is a parallel poetic semblance on the 3:36 title track, which is situated in the middle of the CD. Smith reveals the composition “Is a love song or, perhaps more accurately, a tragic song for a love lost. I created this composition not as a memorial tribute, but as a celebration of life and a clear understanding of love between a man and a woman.” The Finnish TUM label has manufactured a splendid digipak package. The extensive liner notes include Smith’s reflection on his early love of electric guitar; Josef Woodard’s insightful text on the album; Smith’s comments on each tune; photos and biographical annotations for each musician; and an explanation about the abstract Finnish artwork which adorns the front cover and some of the interior.
- Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: A Resonance Change in the Millennium
- Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme
- Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of a Rare Beauty
- The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers
Wadada Leo Smith