Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suites [TrackList follows] – TUM (2 discs)

by | Nov 24, 2014 | Jazz CD Reviews

Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suites [TrackList follows] – TUM CD 041-2, Two CDs: 41:46, 48:35 (9/16/14) ****:

(Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet; Henry Threadgill – alto sax, flute and bass flute; John Lindberg – double bass; Jack DeJohnette – drums)

Anyone who admires the output of Henry Threadgill will be overjoyed by this release.  Anyone who relishes the masterful drums of Jack DeJohnette will love this.  Anyone who admires virtuoso bass in a free setting will be thrilled by this.  And these reactions don’t even yet include the leader of this date, the iconic Wadada Leo Smith.  Smith has been on the free jazz scene since back in the AACM days of the ’70s.  He has been a member of various associations all revolving around the same theme – creativity.  He has his own singular trumpet style along with fascinating compositional skills.  He has had a very artistically rewarding last few years and this might be his best and most accessible date during this time. Bassist Lindberg has played extensively with Smith, while Threadgill’s composing for his own groups is similar in style.  DeJohnette has made a career out of fitting in perfectly with anybody or any style.

There are six suites ranging from just over nine minutes to near 22 minutes.  (If I were the nine-minute “Lake Ontario” I’d file a complaint somewhere for getting the short shrift – even the non-Great Lakes “St. Clair” gets a longer slice of the action).  The six suites then have movements within them.  The combination of tight arrangements along with so much improvisation is exhilarating

The longest track, “Lake Michigan,” at 22 minutes, introduces the full band.  Trumpet and alto sax speak to each other in short spurts while fingered bass and drums carry the rhythm.  Both Smith and Threadgill speak only in very brief sentences or short phrases.  They are more concerned with the sound elicited and how it adds to and guides the compositions.  Almost seven minutes in, a new gentle movement is introduced.  Classical, calm, and peaceful with arco bass and quiet drums backing Smith’s searching trumpet.  DeJohnette then plays a pleasant solo of sticks against rims which actually makes one think of a school of minnows or little fish swimming under the lake water.  He then goes full kit joined only by Lindberg’s bowed bass before breaking into another fine percussion solo.  Lindberg’s arco then acts as the lead instrument until the horns re-enter just under 18 minutes in.  The third movement is just over two minutes long with interplaying horns driven by powerful drums and arco bass.  In general, bassist Lindberg plays mainly arco on disc one and does more fingering on disc two.

“Lake Ontario” begins with flute, arco and drums before Smith joins in.  This piece really shows the use of air, space, and silence in the playing both Smith and Threadgill.  Then the rhythm section plays as a duo with Lindberg bowing as lead instrument, showing his facility and speed.  The horns then enter for a brief embellishment before a trumpet and drum duo section.  Threadgill’s solo flute takes over, later joined by DeJohnette before the full band joins for a brief ending session with a false ending.

This type of writing continues throughout. “Lake Huron” opens with trumpet and arco joined by quiet accents on drums. The first movement ends with bursts from the horns. The next movement starts with unison horns before alto and then trumpet go out front as a trio.  The third movement is flute and the rhythm section. Lindberg’s bowing takes the lead. The flute floats in and out before the trumpet joins for a brief ending.

The movements within suites style is very cerebral with the compositions allowing for various combinations.  A piano is not missed with Threadgill’s arsenal and Smith’s writing.  The horns do not play extended solos, although each has relatively long features during which they maximize space and keep their notes short.  Smith does not at all grab the spotlight.  He often lays out during periods for the sake of the composition.  Lindberg really rises to the occasion handling his responsibilities with aplomb.  DeJohnett is exceedingly tasteful, powerful when called for, and gentle in peaceful support.  This just solidifies his stature as maybe the best jazz drummer today.  Smith has certainly added to his cannon.  He, along with Threadgill, are very creative musical academicians of the highest order.  I bet they both immensely enjoyed this date.

TrackList:  Lake Michigan; Lake Ontario; Lake Superior; Lake Huron; Lake Erie; Lake St. Clair

—Birney Brown


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