Thursday, November 10, 2016

Wadada Leo Smith - America's National Parks (Cuneiform Records, 2016)

Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has developed a series of long form performances recently, dealing with civil rights, environmentalism, and now championing the great American National Parks, both real and imagined. He is using an augmented version of his Golden Quintet on this recording, featuring Anthony Davis on piano, Ashley Walters on cello, John Lindberg on bass and Pheeroan akLaff on drums. The music is stoic and majestic throughout, trying to make clear the majesty of the landscape of the National Parks through music. The addition of the cello is a very nice touch, and Walters is able to dart around the music in addition to providing more articulated gravitas during the more somber passages. Smith uses a wide range of approaches to the music, much is improvised, but the over-arching compositions are composed in a written fashion as well as a unique visual style called Ankhrasmation. This gives the group a wide range of options to choose from while maintaining the integrity of the original composition. "New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718" opens the album, investigating the birthplace of jazz and the history that that city has endured from its founding as a French port through Kartina to the present day. The deep and diverse culture of the city imbues the performance which ranges from meditative to jubilant and Smith's trumpet carries on the legacy of the legendary New Orleans based trumpeter Buddy Bolden. There is a different focus on "Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park," since Southern was a historically important musicologist and author of the seminal works The Music of Black Americans and Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. In this stoic performance, Smith makes the statement that the pursuit of knowledge can be as grand as the natural world. "Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872" commemorates the first American National Park, and also echoes the volatility where all is not what it seems. For all of it's beauty, Yellowstone hides a secret, that fact that it is actually a dormant super-volcano with enough coiled energy stored within to provoke disaster on an epic scale. The band is able to tap into this energy and play music that flexes with grace and power. Smith's commitment to the cause of racial equality was made clear on his epic Ten Freedom Summers collection, and he expands upon that theme here with "The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC." This is the longest performance on the album, and while it celebrates the impact of the river on American life and the development of blues and jazz, the underlying current of the composition reflects the lost and broken African American bodies hidden in the river from the times of slavery through murdered civil rights activists up to today's need for a Black Lives Matter movement. It is to Smith's credit that he never shies away from difficult subjects but interprets and reflects them through his art. "Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890" mirrors the bold and powerful grandeur of the trees of the great western American forests, with a powerful and stentorian performance, before the band ends the album with "Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890" where they bring together all of the aspects of the music they have been performing, both composed and improvised into a towering performance that ends the album with sense of awe that nature imposes upon man. This was a very powerful and successful recording, and its ambition matched by the thoughtfulness of Smith's compositions and the beautiful playing of the band. America's National Parks - amazon.com

Send comments to Tim.