Monday, December 19, 2011

Wadada Leo Smith: Dark Lady Of The Sonnets

Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet)
Live At Roulette NYC 16.12.2011
Dark Lady Of The Sonnets (Tum Records; 2011)
Pheeroan akLaff (drums)
Min Xiao-Fen (pipa; vocals)

A Wadada Leo Smith record or concert is always going to be an experience. There will be unquestioned excellence on the part of the leader. There will be intricate direction given to his bandmates. And there will always be unique use of sound and space which creates a very interesting ride for the listener and audience.

Wadada celebrated his 70th year with a devoted group of New Yorkers (yours truly included) who experienced a wide range of styles and ideas flying from the dreads to trumpet. It was an evening of two distinct lineups. First his Sextet, which deployed more of a "work-in-progress" minimal session. The trumpet gave very tight direction to the members but they each utilized it with superb effect. The standouts were Susie Ibarra, who continually shows why she is one of the best avant garde drummers on the scene. She had a force and fluidity that felt like a tsunami. John Lindberg on bass was also stellar, with a performance that seemed to move in and out of consciousness. The closing piece I swear his bass was set up to a wah wah kit because those grooves were funky and psychedelic all at once.

The second lineup featured members of his Organic Ensemble and Silver Orchestra's. This lineup floated between experimental, funky and fusion. Their previous releases, Spiritual Dimensions and Hearts Reflections are reflected in this performance. There's a more structured and obviously larger sound. The group feels more unified and head in the clear direction. There is space within the notes to improvise whether it is with electronics, vibes, guitars or Smith's distinct notes. This set had more for the audience to grasp onto and went in enough directions that it was immensely enjoyable.

Moving away from the present's large ensemble works to a recent past studio session, Dark Lady Of The Sonnets (Tum Records), recorded in 2007 but only released this year, celebrates life with a real sense of intimacy. It actually took me a couple of listens to really connect with the record. I had been so accustomed to the larger ensemble works that hearing this relatively quiet piece was a little jarring.

The trio setting really allows you to feel a lot more of Smith's playing than ever before. "Sarah Bell Wallace" is dedicated to Smith's mother and it is a somber piece but also features high moments which signify the celebration of her life.

"Blues: Cosmic Beauty" is more what I was used to. A burst of energy from Smith's trumpet with a unified but free form moves from both longtime bandmate Pheeroan akLaff and Xiao-Fen's excellent and unique sounding pipa. The piece gently descends in the middle with akLaff and Smith sharing interchanges with Fen's improvised vocalise. Both "Dark Lady Of The Sonnets" and the closing piece "Mibra" both see Smith's trumpet rising higher and higher. The proceedings are more upbeat and enthralling but still challenge your patience.

Dark Lady Of The Sonnets is about emotion and inner beauty. It's one of the more well focused yet still open flowing albums Wadada Leo Smith has recorded. This is a great record hot on the hills of his Organic releases. And its a great way to celebrate his 70 years of adventurous sounds. Happy Birthday Mr. Smith.

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