Late last year, I interviewed trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith for the February 2010 issue of The Wire. (You can read the full transcript of our conversation here.) I found him to be a soft-spoken, incredibly smart guy who was more than happy to basically hold my hand and walk me through his musical concepts without looking down on me or acting like I needed a few more years of study before I was fit to approach him. He’s a teacher at Cal Arts, and based on our conversation he seems to be one of those “there are no stupid questions” types, which I find really admirable.
I’ve gone from appreciating his music (I first heard him on Matthew Shipp‘s New Orbit and several albums by Yo Miles!, a tribute to ’70s Miles Davis that he co-led with guitarist Henry Kaiser) to being somewhat obsessed with it, as much for its use of space and room sound as for the melodic ideas expressed—and his willingness to arrange pieces for unorthodox instrumentation, like playing trumpet in front of three harpists or something, is of great interest to me. He’s a genius, a brilliant player and musical thinker, and he deserves to have the same cultural stature as Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor.
Smith has recorded at least four other duo albums with percussionists: Cosmos Has Spirit, with Yoshisaburo Toyozumi; Winter in Time, with Günter “Baby” Sommer; America, with Jack DeJohnette; and Compassion, with Adam Rudolph. This one, The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer (buy it from Amazon), though it’s the most recent to be released, predates them all. It’s a live radio broadcast from 1986, taped at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and taking its name from a description of Blackwell that originally formed the title of a piece on America.
Playing trumpet in duo with a drummer is a challenge; the small horn doesn’t have the volume or power of a saxophone, and is designed for ribbonlike melody lines rather than big honking roars, which makes it difficult to go for the kind of crash-and-bellow crescendos heard on saxophone/drums duo discs. That’s why Ed Blackwell was the perfect partner for this performance. His music has a dancing sort of swing to it, filled with the polyrhythms of his native New Orleans. His floor tom in particular is uniquely recognizable, and can be heard as strongly here as it was on Ornette Coleman albums like This is Our Music and To Whom Who Keeps a Record. The constantly shifting, swaying foundation Blackwell sets up allows Smith to explore the more melodic, lyrical side of his trumpet playing, taking off on swift, flurrying runs of notes that have the richness of a mariachi or salsa player, much fuller than most post-bop jazz drummers, almost like Clifford Brown‘s blaring, extravagant solos, but with the structural freedom developed and honored by the AACM. “Mto: The Celestial River” is a perfect example of this interaction, with Blackwell hammering the snare drum as Smith heads into the upper register like Raphé Malik or Roy Campbell.
On two tracks, “Seeds of a Forgotten Flower” and “Don’t You Remember,” Smith also recites poetry. But rather than bringing the proceedings to a standstill, as they might well have done, these interludes provide a brief pause for meditation, for consideration of what’s already been heard and anticipation of what’s to come. Without making explicit reference to anything scriptural, they also seem steeped in Smith’s Rastafarian faith, as he talks about freedom and slavery, about governments “using food as a weapon” and human rights and love triumphing over all.
Some jazz artists are wildly over-productive, pressing record and releasing the results seemingly every time they put the horn to their lips. Wadada Leo Smith is not one of those artists. Despite being a top-flight improviser, he seems to never play a note, let alone record or release a piece of music, that hasn’t been carefully considered. This album is a valuable addition to his discography, on a par with his studio recordings, and highly recommended.