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Wadada Leo Smith

Spiritual Dimensions


by Tim Owen

April 06, 2010


A contrasting double album from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith featuring his Golden and Organic bands

“Spiritual Dimensions” comes hot on the heels of Wadada Leo Smith’s “Abbey Road Quartet” album for Treader(see the accompanying Treader feature elsewhere on this site). A double CD, it gives anyone who was intrigued or inspired by the Treader date a great opportunity to hear the trumpeter in settings that, though each very different, are more representative of the main body of his work.

The first “Spiritual Dimensions” disc presents a 2008 date by the latest version of Smith’s Golden band. Here, bassist John Lindberg provides a limber, often funky lynch-pin around which two outstandingly effective musical partnerships operate. The quartet that recorded the imperious “Tabligh” (Cuneiform, 2005) derived much of its character from its inimitable percussionist Shannon Jackson, so his replacement here by both Pheeroan akLaff and Don Moye promises a radical change. akLaff is a composer and performer who has gigged and recorded widely, notably on dates by Oliver Lake and Henry Threadgill, while Moye is indelibly associated with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Here they compliment each other so well that the dual drums set-up is oddly discreet, acting as effectively in subtle colouration as in imposing rhythmic impetus. Their work is exceptionally well matched and differentiated by Vijay Iyer’s stately, sometimes imperious pianism and Smith’s steely clarity of tone, resonating with each other in what is effectively a melodic dyad that spearheads the groups attack.

Each of these great musicians has demonstrated, for example in Moye’s Caribbean and African rhythms and in Iyer’s interest in Carnatic music and West African drumming1, an engagement with the broad pan-ethnicity of African American experience. These influences are palpable here but are always refracted through the prism of contemporary American Jazz, lending the first four of the set’s five tracks a joyous, bracing freshness. By way of contrast, Smith introduces the final track, “South Central L.A. Kulture”, with muted effects that deliberately evoke the electric Miles Davis, and when Lindberg joins in he imposes a loose, wah-inflected riff. The drummers and Iyer agitate and push things along, there’s a free passage featuring a strong solo by Iyer, and some magnificent soloing by Smith throughout, but all the same it’s a somewhat deflationary coda to the set. In the context of this double album it’s also a bridge to the next.

“South Central L.A. Kulture” is also the song that kicks off disc two, in a rendition by Wadada Leo Smith’s Organic. Whereas the Golden Quintet are mostly acoustic, albeit with some deft electric touches, Organic are primarily electric. akLaff is the sole drummer here, but Lindberg is partnered with electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson. There’s a cellist, Okkyung Lee, and four, yes four electric guitarists: Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, Nels Cline and (albeit only on two of four lengthy tracks) Lamar Smith. Again it’s a live set, though at least some of Cline’s parts are overdubbed. Despite the congruence of four highly distinctive guitarists (Cline, for example, is an alt. rock free jazzer who tours and records with Wilco, whereas Ross has played with Cassandra Wilson to Henry Threadgill) the ghost of Miles prevents this date from ever transcending the relentlessly s(t)olid drum and bass groove. Organic may be a more interesting proposition than Smith’s rather pointless Yo Miles! tribute band, but for a groove machine who purportedly “stomp and burn” (as the press release would have it) the band evince a conspicuous lack of funk and mostly meander along in second gear, with all and sundry chipping in with sporadically lovely, fragmentary solos to very little cumulative effect. The tastefulness and restraint of the guitarists is commendable, and Korean New Yorker Okkyung Lee grabs her occasional cameos and wrings as much passion from them as she can. Mostly though it’s the lulls, all plugged with Smith’s mournful dirging, that persist in the memory.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh; the Organic disc documents an interesting experiment, and it’s one I’ll no doubt return to with reassessment in mind; but if you want to hear Smith in an experimental progressive setting you’d be better off checking out the aforementioned Abbey Road Quartet. That said, the Golden Quintet disc alone is unmissable, and the combined package makes Spiritual Dimensions a very attractive proposition indeed.

1 see

Tim’s Star Ratings;

Disc One (Golden) 4 Stars

Disc Two (Organic) 2.5 Stars

Overall 4 Stars

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