Wadada Leo Smith Guitar, Brass and Percussion Ensembles at Cafe Oto, August 2012

The American composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith has developed a strong relationship with London over recent years. He first played with the guitarist John Coxon, once of Spring Heel Jack, on that group’s last album, The Sweetness of The Water (Thirsty Ear, 2004), and the pair consolidated the relationship with Brooklyn Duets (2005) and Abbey Road Quartet (2007), both on Spring Heel Jack’s Treader label. Smith then played at Freedom of the City 2010, both in a trio with drummers Steve Noble and Louis Moholo and as a guest of the London Improvisers Orchestra, quickly following up with his first visit to Oto, playing there with Coxon, drummer Mark Sanders, bassist John Edwards.

For Smith’s latest visit to Cafe Oto—on 26 and 27 August 2012, again facilitated by Coxon—four strikingly original ensembles were convened to allow the trumpeter, composer and bandleader to express his musical vision in different contexts.

For the first set of the first night Smith played in an acoustic trio with guitarists John Coxon and John Russell. Coxon played texturally, using a slide or a percussionist’s mallets to produce an array of reverberant, zither-like drones and tapping sounds to add colour to Russell’s nettled, skeletal melodic propositions. Smith played Harmon-muted trumpet with pensive fullness, making sudden declamatory expostulations and developing fragments of accidental lyricism into miniatures of philosophical sublimity. The second set featured Smith with Russell and Coxon again, now both plugged in, and energised further by John Edwards (double bass) and Mark Sanders (drums). This quintet played an absolutely magnificent set that occasionally, necessarily ebbed but mostly flowed in a galvanising surge of energy that bordered on power jazz-fusion, buoyed by Sanders’ acute rhythmic intelligence and Edwards deep woody bass propulsion.

In the first set of the following evening, Smith led a brass ensemble featuring Gail Brand (trombone), Ian Smith (trumpet, cornet), and Byron Wallen (trumpet, flugelhorn). Coxon also played, concocting ambient backdrops from looped CD samples and sketching out naive melodies on melodica. The contrasts between the three trumpeters were striking. While Wallen played sparingly in a post-bop style of supple clarity and implicit musicality, reminiscent at times of the Blue Notes’ Mongezi Feza, Ian Smith was more informal and loquacious, dealing in impressionistic abstractions. It would be hard to find two more contrasting styles with which to counterpoint the leader’s phrenic precision. Brand did a superb job, playing fluently and often with surprising delicacy, infusing the others’ playing with warmth.

The final set had Smith backed by two world-class drummers in Steve Noble and This Heat veteran Charles Hayward, plus Orphy Robinson on xylosynth (electronic xylophone) and marímbula (‘bass box’ lamellophone). Noble and Hayward complemented each other perfectly while remaining always strikingly individuated. Hayward is a master of intelligent rhythmic insistence, freeing Noble up to play with percussive coloratura, sounding cymbals directly on his drum heads with the signature twang of Chinese percussion. Orphy Robinson’s idiophonics enriched their pile-driving rhythmic impetus with deep chordal vibes and fluid ripples of melodious luminosity. Smith played for the first time plugged in to an array of effects, using a wah-wah pedal to distort his clarion declamations into vivid, subtly psychedelic smears. Unfortunately Smith suffered a problem with his effects and his concentration lapsed, leaving Hayward and Noble to play the bulk of the set out in an elaborate holding pattern.

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