by Tim Owen
August 21, 2011
A stamp of authority from a band leader who knows he's bought everything together nicely this time around.
Wadada Leo Smith
I awarded a Jazz Mann four-star rating to the first album that featured Wadada Leo Smith’s Organic, but that was despite, rather than because of, their contribution to it. That was last year’s two-disc set “Spiritual Dimensions” (also Cuneiform), on which the companion set by Smith’s semi-acoustic Golden Quartet carried the day; the Organic disc was comparatively flat-footed and uninspired. This time around, Organic get the four stars without cheating. So what’s changed? Well there are still four electric guitarists involved here, with Josh Gerowitz replacing former guest star Nels Cline. Violinist Stephanie Smith substitutes for cellist Okkyung Lee, whose contributions to “Spiritual Dimensions” were among the highlights. Angelica Sanchez, on piano and Wurlitzer, is a significant addition to the ensemble, alongside Caseys Anderson and Butler, on alto and tenor saxophones respectively, while the twinned laptops of Mark Trayle and Charlie Burgin add a whole other dimension of possibilities. Meanwhile the essentials remain unchanged, with Pheeroan akLaff’s drumming, and the electric/acoustic tag team of bassists Sk?li Sverrisson and John Lindberg very much present and correct. And those electric guitars still dominate front-line support: Leo Smith continues to serve out his apprenticeship in his grandfather’s ensemble alongside veterans Michael Gregory (Oliver Lake) and Brandon Ross (Henry Threadgill, Cassandra Wilson, Bill Frisell, and Archie Shepp, among others).
“Heart’s Reflections” is another two-disc set, but without the Golden Quartet around to steal their thunder Organic here stretch out to fill the temporal space, and they let in a good deal of much-needed light and shade in the process. There are enough electric guitar-drenched, locked-down funk-jazz grooves here to fill a single disc every bit as frustratingly one-dimensional as their earlier effort, but the lengthy multi-part suite that constitutes the title track breaks the ensemble down into numerous subdivisions and a couple of long tracks on disc two - dedicated to author Toni Morrison and free-jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins respectively - also loosen up enough to explore interesting textural juxtapositions. Disc one begins, however, with a loose funk riff for WLS to solo over, and it’s indicative that despite his proven track record as a musical composer and conceptualist of genuine originality, Smith often sounds most in his element when he’s plugged into a wah wah and free to extrapolate on memories of Miles Davis’ in the mid-?70s. The title of this 20 minute opus is “Don Cherry’s Electric Sonic Garden”, but Cherry would have crammed much more incident and inspiration into a track a fifth as long. It’s not a promising start.
Disc one, track two gets the album’s centrepiece suite, full title “Heart’s Reflections: Splendors of Light and Purification (for Shaykh Abu Al-Hasan al-Shadhili)”, under way with another fine trumpet solo over light percussion (it’s the saving grace of Organics’ more potentially interminable tracks that Smith would remain listenable at any length over just about any backing, which is perhaps that’s the real connection with Don Cherry, who I once saw, in the mid ?80s, at a festival in Crawley, backed by a local reggae band). Imam Shadhili, incidentally, was the founder of Shadhiliyya Sufi, which was a relatively permissive and non-ascetic order. This track is titled “The Dhikr of Radiant Hearts, part 1”, a dhikr being a repetitive invocation, either of the names of God, or of hadithi or Qur’anic texts. Sufism is surely central to Smith’s philosophy, and that’s always worth bearing in mind when considering his music. “The Dhikr?” part two languidly shades a feature for Angelica Sanchez’ Wurlitzer into a dialogue between bass and electric guitar that plays out in a weightless atmosphere, before a lovely contrabass solo by John Lindberg, reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison’s later solos for John Coltrane, takes the piece out. There are three such two-part subdivisions of the “Heart’s Reflections” suite, and it’s arguable how closely bonded these parts are to each other, let alone to the whole, but that doesn’t really matter, since it’s in the contrasts of shape, mood and texture that increased listening pleasure resides.
The suite’s third part, “The Mystic Way” is brighter and more propulsive, with an eruptive coda by akLaff that carries the leader buoyantly aloft before ebbing to leave him surrounded by breakers of percussion and cymbal wash. “The Shaykh, as far as Humaythira” is an odd melange of harmolodic funk, non-sequitur guitar solos, and disjointed drumming that ends with a series of slammed and compacted elisions. “Spiritual Presence” sets the ensemble free to solo around the pole of a plangent trumpet solo. This piece sounds like it might be graphically notated, since the players seem to respond not so much to each others’ actions as to a loosely defined mesh of thematic associations. “Certainty” kicks things up a gear for a Miles-at-Fillmore boogaloo, with Smith loosing declamatory blats of trumpet and Sanchez’s Wurlitzer noodling over a rock-solid solid drum track. Ross and Gregory provide a running commentary. The two parts of “Ritual and Memory” conclude disc one. The former features the twin laptops, playing electronic textures against Stephanie Smith’s violin, and is rather rudely interrupted as part two drops in akLaff to backup a broiling twin bass attack by Sverrisson and Lindberg. CD two picks right up from there with the suite’s ninth part, “Silsila”, which has akLaaf punching his way out of a doomy electric-bass dominated backing. A final two-parter, “The Well” begins in a bouncy up-tempo mood, but plays out in a series of mordant trumpet flurries across a bed of electronics.
This leaves only the two aforementioned dedication pieces. The ten-minute long “Toni Morrison: The Black Hole (Sagitarius A*), Consequence and Epic Memory” could outdo Keiji Haino in the ongoing quest for the most preposterous/pretentious song title ever, but it is quite an interesting piece all the same. In the intro, Smith solos forcefully over an ensemble backing dominated by the laptops and violin, but the body of the piece is an affectingly hesitant feature for Angelica Sanchez; essentially a piano trio. This leaves just the 22.5 minutes of “Leroy Jenkins’s Air Steps” to wrap things up. It begins energised and up-tempo, in a freewheeling state that this ensemble rarely attains. Smith then plays off against a turbulent backdrop of mutable ensemble alliances in passages of varying intensity. akLaaf, a key player throughout, rises to heat generated by the four unleashed guitarists (whose presences throughout are more central than I may have suggested: Ross, in particular, is constantly versatile) and Sverrisson’s assertive electric bass. Stephanie Smith’s violin is notably truculent, alternating scrapes and smears with scorching, high-pitch runs. Leo Smith takes the lead for a reflective interlude, with sensitive accompaniment from acoustic bass and piano. When the ensemble kick back in the vibe is funkier, with guitarist Michael Gregory soloing extensively, then an atmospheric coda cools things down for a brief statement by the leader, signing off; a final stamp of authority from a band leader who knows he’s bought everything together nicely this time around.
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