Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira – Dark Lady of the Sonets

Whereas some of trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith’s recent releases have been for large ensembles such as the avant-funk electric ensemble Organic, his latest (ahead of the forthcoming multi-disc chamber jazz opus Ten Freedom Summers), Dark Lady of the Sonets (TUM Records) is an album of direct, elegant simplicity for acoustic trio.

Mbira is a vehicle for Smith’s trumpet and flugelhorn, Min Xiao-Fen’s pipa (lute) and occasional vocal, and Phaeroan akLaff’s drums.

Improv lovers may know Xiao-Fen for the powerful and rigorously bare-boned duets she recorded with guitarist Derek Bailey in the late 90s. The coloration of her interplay with Smith’s brass can be similarly austere, but it is also invigorating, and the superb drumming of akLaff, who has rarely sounded so essential, adds body, bounce and drama, as well as drive.

Smith describes his ensemble as being “dedicated to realising a spiritual music within the African creative music idiom (with) the same ensemble conception and philosophical/mystical nature as in the Shona music tradition of Zimbabwe”, but with a contemporary interpretation.

The album has a sprightly multikulti vibe, which calls to mind Don Cherry’s Codona trio with multi-instrumentalist Colin Walcott and Brazilian percussionist/berimbau player Nana Vasconcelos. That resemblance is particularly striking on Dark Lady’s shortest and most rhythmically linear track, “Zulu Water Festival”, in which Xiao-Fen’s comments cut through Smith’s head melody, her pipa imparting a formal elegance with overtly Chinese overtones, a direct cultural allusion such that she usually avoids.

The trio’s control of dynamics is masterly. Witness seven minutes into “Sarah Bell Wallace”, where there’s a sudden relaxation of tension in tandem with a tightening of focus and raise in temperature. Or “Blues: Cosmic Beauty”, which starts with fierce rebarbative intent, but slowly simmers down to limpid interplay and a spacious, sparkling backing to the first of Xiao-Fen’s vocals.

Smith’s song structures favour dramatic interpretation, as on the complex two-part “Mbira”, which has a vigorously interpreted first act and a more impressionistic second, in which Xiao-Fen’s vocal is enveloped in a percussive swirl while Smith blows in counterpoint.

On the first part of “Dark Lady of the Sonnets” Xiao-Fen sings Smith’s plaintive lyric in memory of Billie Holiday, while its second movement is contrastingly vigorous; a percussion-dominated workout that casts Smith into the eye of a storm in which the pipa evokes a sharp wind and piercing, lateral rain.

Sometimes, when I play this album, I focus on Smith and Xiao-Fen’s pas de deux (it’s worth bearing in mind that Smith plays ‘ethnic’ instruments such as the koto himself, so this trio is the expression of an abiding interest); at other times it the drummer seems to have it all. But the even-handedness of the trio is remarkable, and for all the wit and verve of their interpretation, they trace the strengths of Smith’s compositions with the clarity of a blueprint.

Notwithstanding my Codona comparison, the 71 year old trumpeter’s playing here is at its most commanding and original. In his lucid, vividly dramatic music, all three protagonists are all equally forceful and dynamic, and their collective agility and nuance of judgement is perfectly captured.

Related Post
Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers

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