Freedom Still Rings with Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet
Three quarters of the way through his concert last night at the Clef Club in Philadelphia, Wadada Leo Smith unleashed a clarion trumpet call known to anyone who has heard Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. In a night of furious, complex time changes, angular melodies and fractured motifs, it was one of the few anchors presented in this wide-ranging concert of barely composed free improvisation. The guy in front of me started bopping his head and drumming on his knees, an exercise that would’ve been futile for most of this set.
Wadada Leo Smith was one of the leading lights of the new jazz in the 1970s. As a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, (AACM) he came up with all the brilliant and iconoclastic musicians in that scene from Anthony Braxton to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Over forty years later, his music still burns with the same intensity and political verve.
For this performance produced by the Ars Nova Workshop in the woefully under-utilized Clef Club, Smith brought in an all-star group which he calls the Golden Quartet. One member, pianist Anthony Davis, goes back with him more 40 years to his 1975 album, Reflectivity, with the New Dalta Ahkri trio. Davis is a giant himself who brokered an avant-garde third stream jazz in the 1980s with a splendid, cutting string of albums from Past Lives in 1978 to Ghost Factory in 1988. He also spun opera on its head with Tania and X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. The other trio members are drummer Pheeroan akLaff, who goes back with Smith almost as far as Davis and bassist John Lindberg, both veterans of the avant-garde scene and leaders in their own right.
That blast from Bitches Brew revealed how much Smith had absorbed the sound of Miles Davis and emerged with his own style, one which is more braying and angular, closer to Don Cherry’s Afro-Asian cry than Miles’s urban lament. Even when he takes Davis’ role on the Yo Miles tribute albums, Smith attacks it from elliptical flight paths.
There was none of the Yo Miles energy and groove with this concert. Most of the material was drawn from Smith’s Pulitzer nominated four CD set, Ten Freedom Summers. They included “Dred Scott: 1857”, “Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada” and “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless,” although Smith had trouble remembering which ones they actually played. “What was that one?” he queried the band during his mid-set lecture.
While the band had music scores in front of them, these were probably more motifs than through composed as the music ebbed and flowed across stormy torrents and pristine spaces. Smith often hand-signaled the changes and conclusions. It didn’t matter as these four long time cohorts negotiated their free-ranging dialogue. AkLaff was a centrifuge of churning pulse and rimshot commentary constantly building and deconstructing a rhythmic architecture that that was more Gehry than groove. He was joined by Davis, a post-Cecil Taylor pianist who retains an inner structure no matter how far out he flys. He shifted from white water free-flows with undertones of boogie-woogie to gentle, pristine spaces where the piano became a set of chimes.
For all the African-American consciousness and imagery in his music, Wadada Leo Smith is heavily influenced by classical music, contemporary and standard. You can hear it in his use of space, often leaving open silences handing amidst the surge; his use of dissonance and the fact that John Lindberg rarely played his bass pizzicato, instead bowing out long sustains and forceful accents like an angry brawler. When he played plucked his bass, as he did for much of the second set, the music took on a more muscular, rhythmic character.
Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter in his own stream. The tributaries include Miles, Don Cherry and Lee Morgan, but he flows through a unique and dynamic path that was in full effect this night with his Golden Quartet.