Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has been extremely productive in recent years, issuing single- and multi-disc sets at a furious clip through a few trusted labels, Cuneiform, TUM and Tzadik in particular. Most artists would take an extended break after releasing something as epic as 2012’s Ten Freedom Summers, a four-disc opus greeted by rave reviews (and a Pulitzer Prize nomination). But in the two years since that set appeared, he’s sped up, if anything, releasing Ancestors, a duo encounter with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo; Occupy the World, a double disc of collaborations with the 20-piece Finnish group TUMO; and Sonic Rivers, with saxophonist John Zorn and trombonist/electronic composer George Lewis. And now, he’s got two more releases appearing simultaneously—the two-CD The Great Lakes Suites, and the comparatively concise Red Hill.
The Great Lakes Suites features maybe the closest thing to an all-star band Smith’s ever assembled. He’s joined by alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Each man has previous history with Smith: he and Threadgill are both members of the AACM, and have worked together intermittently since the 1970s; Lindberg anchors three of the trumpeter’s bands (the Golden Quartet/Quintet, Organic, and the Silver Orchestra); and DeJohnette was a member of the original Golden Quartet, and recorded a duo album, America, with Smith in 2009.
The six tracks that make up the set range from fairly long (nine minutes) to epic (22 minutes), and they’ve got a vitality that belies the players’ ages. The opening “Lake Michigan” begins at full strength, with Threadgill taking a lengthy and biting solo as Lindberg and DeJohnette rattle and throb behind him. At the seven-minute mark, though, it all stops dead and Smith begins a mournful journey, as though rowing out on the titular lake in an early-morning fog; behind him, the bassist bows, and the drummer clatters ominously. And when DeJohnette’s solo spot arrives, it’s quite literally breathtaking, building from subtle to seismic over the course of nearly six minutes. From there, it’s a 90-minute journey of remarkable intensity. Even when the music seems to settle down to a low simmer, as on “Lake Erie,” which begins with some intense flute work from Threadgill, DeJohnette refuses to let things get too subdued; he’s always there in the background, ready to amp it all up at a moment’s notice. And Smith’s trumpet playing travels through multiple moods, from rich, rippling lines to muted long tones that spear through everything. This is an album intended to overwhelm the listener, not with clichéd displays of fury, but with a kind of massed energy that ultimately solidifies like a cloud hardening into a boulder.
Stream “Lake Superior”:
Red Hill, released on the RareNoise label, is a very different record. It opens with a muted but still piercing melody from Smith, and slowly the rest of the band—keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Joe Morris, and drummer Balazs Pandi—come together behind him. (These three have worked for RareNoise, in varying combinations, multiple times, but this is the trumpeter’s first appearance on the label.) It’s a patient, subdued assembly, less like a fanfare/call to action and more like materialization.
The crispness of The Great Lakes Suites is gone. This is a moody, reverb-soaked album. Saft’s piano has a haunted-house feel, while his Fender Rhodes work has a psychedelic, floating-in-space quality. Morris’s bass has none of the aggression of Lindberg’s; his sound is a meaty, human boom at the center of the mix. Pandi’s playing, meanwhile, has a metallic ominousness. His cymbals whoosh and crash, and his drums always sound like he’s playing them with mallets, even when he’s not. He comes from a hardcore/grind background, and it shows—although he leaves plenty of space for the others, he’s dominant even from the back. Which is clearly the intention; this is a murky album that feels spiritually kin to some of Bill Laswell‘s 1990s work, both with John Zorn‘s PainKiller and on his own. (Pandi is a more than worthy heir to Mick Harris‘s metal-dude-gone-improv throne, too.) Red Hill is a unique context for Wadada Leo Smith‘s highly individualistic, instantly recognizable trumpet sound and compositional style. While there are commonalities between it and other albums of his, his bandmates spur him in directions he’s never traveled before—more proof that he’s on a creative hot streak that’s several years long at this point and shows no sign of winding down.