Thursday, May 20, 2021

Masters At Play May 2021

The decade between 1963-1972 was such a fertile time for Creative Music.  Musicians like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Muhal Richard Abrams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and others were stretching, even obliterating the boundaries of music and sound. The artists mentioned below, especially Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Holland, and the late Milford Graves, have never sat still waiting for the world to catch up with them; instead, they have dedicated their creative lives to continually exploring the myriad possibilities open to them and fellow musicians.

Photo: Petri Haussila
Wadada Leo Smith (12/1941, Leland. MS) began playing trumpet when he was 12 years old. After completing high school, Mr. Smith played in various soul rhythm 'n' blues, and blues bands before joining the U.S. Army, studying in the Music Program and playing in Army bands.  After leaving the service, the trumpeter settled in Chicago where he began playing with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins. Like a number of musicians associated with the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), Mr. Smith developed his musical philosophy which he called Ankhrasmation Symbol Language which he utilizes to this day.  In 1970, he moved to New Haven, CT,  working with numerous groups (including New Delta Ahkri and The Creative Improviser Orchestra) as well as studying at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.

Photo: Petri Haussila
In 1992, Mr. Smith moved to Southern California to teach at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) where he remained for two decades.  He organized new ensembles and worked alongside guitarist Henry Kaiser in Yo Miles! while still working with his AACM cadre.  Over the past two decade, Mr. Smith has recorded numerous albums with various ensembles that he has led (and still leads) plus continuing to work on solo material.  His albums have appeared on ECM Records, Tzadik, Moers Music, Cuneiform, Pi Records, Nessa, Clean Feed, his own Kabell label, and, since 2011, on the Finnish TUM Records label.

2021 will see a flurry of new releases from Wadada Leo Smith beginning with two three-CD sets from TUM. "Trumpet" is just that; a solo program recorded over 4 days in July of 2016 inside St. Mary's Church in Pohja, Finland (approximately one hour west of Helsinki).  Officially, it's his eighth "solo" album but only the second that is exclusively trumpet (the other one being "Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk" released by TUM in 2017 – 2001's "Red Sulfur Sky" on Tzadik is mostly trumpet and some flugelhorn).  If you are a devotee of Mr. Smith's music, you will be pleased by this 134+ minutes, 14-song program. The first two discs each contain a five-part composition while disk three contains two four-part pieces. Each disk is housed in a cardboard jacket featuring original artwork by the trumpeter.  For neophytes, it's best to just sit down, sit still, and listen.  Don't try to make sense of either the music or the fact that each work is dedicated to someone who has had a powerful influence or relationship with Mr. Smith.  Disk one opens with "Albert Ayler" and is followed by the five-part "Rashomon", named for the movie that so moved the composer.  Elsewhere there are works dedicated to violinist Jenkins, the author James Baldwin, drummer Steve McCall, pianist/ vocalist Amina Claudine Meyers, bassist Reggie Workman, and to Mr. Smith's family. 

Photo: Petri Haussila
There is no mistaking Mr. Smith's sound, his clarion call tone clear inside the church.  His ability to blend sound and silence, to make his muted trumpet cut through the air like a saber and sill be grounded in the blues, to absorb how his long notes resonate, and to sit straight up during his rapid-fire phrases, all this has only grown more powerful over his musical lifetime.  Plus, by dedicating these pieces to various people, curious listeners will discover musicians and thinkers who they may be able to learn from. To understand "Trumpet", you must surrender to the fact that you have entered the multi-cultural world of Wadada Leo Smith: his music, his rules, his ideas and ideals of freedom. 

Here's the album opener "Albert Ayler":

"Sacred Ceremonies" is the second three-CD set to released this month by TUM. Disk one (5/27/2016) is a duet with Wadada Leo Smith in musical conversation with percussionist Milford Graves, disk two a duo with Mr. Smith and bassist Bill Laswell (recorded the day before), and disk three with all three participants (recorded 12/11-12/2016).  While the bassist has worked with both the trumpeter and the percussionist in the past, this looks to be the first time Mr. Smith and Mr. Graves (who passed earlier this year) met in the studio.  The majority of the material on the duo albums is composed by the trumpeter while four of the seven trio tracks are credited to all three musicians.  Clocking in at 174 minutes, the three albums are chock-full of ideas, fascinating interplay, and the joy of three people creating musical conversations

Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
Unlike "Trumpet", "Sacred Ceremonies" is three distinct recordings yet sharing the same title.  Mr. Smith has always had a special affinity with drummers having recorded duo albums with Ed Blackwell, Jack DeJohnette, Adam Rudolph, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Gunter "Baby" Sommer, and now Milford Graves.  This session with Mr. Graves is a joy from start to finish with the drummer displaying his affinity to African drumming as well as rhythms from the Caribbean and South America.  Among the highlights is "Baby Dodds in Congo Square", a nearly 14-minute opus with drums that rumble and tumble while the trumpet sharp tone sings, shouts, and praises "freedom".  The interaction between the two throughout is a pleasure to hear.  Mr. Graves's high-hat work is fascinating on several tracks but especially on "The Poet: Play Ebody, Play Ivory"; the gentle rhythmic propulsion shimmers beneath the floating trumpet phrases.

Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
The combination of Mr. Smith and electric bassist Laswell hearkens back somewhat to both musicians love of electric Miles Davis.  The bassist appeared on Mr. Smith's "Najwa" album (TUM 2014), the recording with four guitarists. Recorded in Mr. Laswell's West Orange, NJ, studio, all of the tracks feature synths (presumably the bassist playing them) washing behind the musicians.  The program features performances dedicated to Prince, Donald Ayler, Tony Williams, and the late vocalist Minnie Ripperton.  "Prince –– A Blue Diamond Spirit" is actually quite funky with its dancing bass line, "wah-wah" bass, and overdubbed counterpoint bass while the trumpeter wails above. "Tony Williams" opens with a muted trumpet melody, circular in its intent.  The basses enter and the music bounces forward. Mr. Smith stays close to the original melody until he bursts out momentarily for 15-20 seconds before giving the music over to the synths.  

Photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
The third disk brings the three musicians together for more adventures in creativity.  After Mr. Graves sets the pace on the opening track, "Social Justice –– A Fire for Reimagining the World", Mr. Smith makes a blazing statement atop the powerful rhythm section.  This album also hearkens back to the electric Miles period; you hear it in the rhythms and in the muted trumpet trumpet attack.  Throughout most of this recording, the drummer is the one who sets the pace, builds the foundation of the music while the bassist and trumpeter weave around each other.  Mr. Laswell's thick bass melody opens "Waves of Elevated Horizontal Force", soon joined by the muted trumpet on countermelody –– one hears echoes "In a Silent Way".  The pulsating and pounding drums change the mood and the music rumbles forward.  Mr. Graves leads the way into "The Healer's Direct Energy" (a reference to the work the drummer conducted on the healing properties of music); when Mr. Smith and Mr. Laswell enter, the music takes a slower route forward, one that depends upon the long trumpet tones and the bassist's responses.  

As Wadada Leo Smith moves through his 80th year in this dimension, he continues to create fascinating music in so many different contexts.  These two TUM releases, "Trumpet" and "Sacred Ceremonies", should certainly satisfy long-time listeners; if you have never spent time in his worlds, start with the Milford Graves/ Bill Laswell set as it covers so much territory.  If you love a challenge, go for the trumpet solo albums as the music will teach you and make you think.  

For more information, go to  To learn more about the trumpeter's amazing career, go to

Here's the Trio and "Social Justice –– A Fire For Reimagining the World":

Photo: Ralf Dombroski
Bassist and composer Dave Holland (born 1946) began his professional career at the age of 14 playing in dance bands in and around his hometown of Wolverhampton, England.  Four years later, he moved to London and soon began playing in jazz ensembles led by saxophonist Tubby Hayes, pianist Chris MacGregor, and reed master John Surman. The story goes that trumpeter Miles Davis heard young Dave Holland at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club and invited him to join his new acoustic/ electric ensemble. Over the next few years, Holland played on "Filles de Kilimanjaro", "In a Silent Way", and "Bitches Brew", finding time to work with Chick Corea and the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra. After leaving Davis's employ, he joined pianist Corea, reed master Anthony Braxton, and drummer Barry Altshul to create the free jazz-minded Circle.  The bassist signed to ECM Records where, within a few years, he produced his first masterpiece in 1972, "Conference of the Birds" (with Mr. Braxton, Mr. Altschul, and Sam Rivers), and then co-created Gateway, a trio with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette.  Holland became an in-demand studio bassist appearing on scores of ECM dates and more.  His original music and powerful as well as melodic bass playing has kept him in the spotlight for five decades.

In 2019, Holland debuted on Edition Records in Fall 2019 in "Good Hope", a trio with saxophonist Chris Potter and tabla master Zakir Hussain.  His debut as a leader for the label is "Another Land", a trio that reunites the bassist with guitarist Kevin Eubanks and is his first recording with drummer Obed Calvaire.  The Trio has actually been together over five years but this is its debut recording.  Holland, who knows how to to create a good groove, pulls out his electric bass for the opening "Grave Walker" –– he immediately locks in with Calvaire and the album is off to a deeply funky start.  Eubanks jumps right in and plays a powerful solo that includes long phrases, choppy r'n'b chords, and a percussive drive of his own.  Later in the program, the deep tones of the electric bass begin a mysterious journey title "The Village" that features a long, languorous, opening that explodes when Eubanks enters. Calvaire's solo is a thunderous treat that inspires a fiery guitar solo. 

Holland's thick acoustic bass lines lead in "Gentle Warrior", a piece that should remind you of pieces that the bassist has written for his sextet.  There's an airy quality to the melody line but Calvaire's drumming, front and center, keeps up the heat.  "20 20" opens with quiet work from the Trio but then Holland's electric bass plays a line that would not be out of place in a "prog-rock" setting. For the bulk of the tune, he shifts between the acoustic and electric basses, the former for solos.  The title track is a handsome blues-tinged piece buoyed by a repetitive bass line, gentle acoustic guitar, and quiet cymbal work as Eubanks (on electric) plays the gentle melody. One expects the piece to explode at any time yet the gentleness continues throughout (Holland's long solo is quite impressive while Calvaire's cymbal work never rises above a whisper). 

Photo: Megan V. Agins/ NY Times
Rockers such as "Mashup" and the rip-roaring "The Village" mesh nicely alongside the lovely ballad "Passing Time" and the elegant solo guitar piece, "Quiet Fire".  The solo piece is reminiscent of John Abercrombie's "Timeless"; not as trancelike, Eubanks moves easily through the melody without trying to dazzle or impress the listener. In fact, this is one of the most impressive recordings that the guitarist has made. He's creative and he does not let his impressive technique get in the way of his soulful, exciting, contributions.

"Another Land" closes with the deep blues of "Bring It Back Home". Featuring a subtle acoustic bass solo and a splendid guitar spotlight, pay attention to how Calvaire does not overplay but takes it nice and gritty.  We listeners are so lucky that Dave Holland continues to move forward, never resting on his imposing laurels.  Turn up the volume and give a listen! 

For more information, go to  

Here's "Mashup" –– play it loud!

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