No slacking for Wadada Leo Smith, following the release last year of his four hours long, 19-piece, Pulitzer Prize in music-nominated Ten Freedom Summers. For his latest album, he leads a 22-piece orchestra of leading Nordic improvisers in a suite of original compositions.
The album’s substantial title piece extends Smith’s human rights theme to embrace the Occupy movement, which Smith lauds for its “surge of confrontational spirit” in the face of “internalized cynicism”.
Occupy the World is TUMO’s debut recording. The orchestra is not a fixed entity, rather an ad-hoc aggregation of musicians, many of them associated with the Finnish TUM Records label from which the orchestra takes its name. They include guitarist Kalle Kalima and two members (Mikko Innanen (saxophones) and Veli Kujala (quarter-tone accordion)) of his K-18 quartet, with which he recorded the recent Out to Lynch album; and trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, who recorded Rubidium with Black Motor: both of these albums, released on TUM earlier in the year, were reviewed in part 1 of this Label Roundup.
On the present recording, Smith is the featured soloist on four pieces, with his fellow American, guest bassist John Lindberg taking the limelight as well as the composer’s dedication on a fifth.
As listens go, Occupy the World is considerably less all-consuming than Ten Freedom Summers. These are all substantial pieces—none run to less than fifteen minutes, while the title piece extends over half an hour—but they are all characteristically individuated.
Smith conceives of at least some of his compositions (“The Bell – 2” being the prime instance) in terms of scores supplemented by “rhythm units”, the articulation of which he guides by conduction. Other passages make space for collective improvisation. The focus across sections shifts between families of instruments, so Smith can be painterly with the orchestral palette of timbres (colours and textures) at his disposal. Despite the mass of these resources, Smith has created a richly textured and subtly nuanced collection.
‘Queen Hatshepsut” is initially stately, even ceremonial, as befits a dedication to a pharaoh; but surges of collective dynamism push individual instrumentalists to the fore in a subdued orchestral progression that becomes a drone beneath the leader’s extended solo. Accordion, piano and double bass contrive a melody in a final section which militates against a casual resolution.
“The Bell – 2” is the shortest piece here, running to not much more than fifteen minutes. It’s also this collection’s most open and accessible track. An update of Smith’s first composition, it originally appeared on Anthony Braxton’s debut album, 3 Compositions of New Jazz (1968), on which Smith also played. Smith solos boldly in the first section, with additional trumpet and electronics by Verneri Pohjola and the electric guitars of Kale Kalima and Mikko Iivanainen also prominent. String instruments dominate the second section, while the third features electric guitar and brass, occasionally energised by marimba-shadowed kit percussion.
“Mount Kilimanjaro (Love And Compassion For John Lindberg)” is conceived as a “concerto for bass violin and orchestra”, featuring its dedicatee as principal soloist. The orchestra’s three drummers also combine dynamically in a piece composed to reflect the “mystique and dynamical diversity energy” of the world’s largest mountain, successfully realised in the tension between Lindberg’s evocative, deep-grained bowing and the ensemble’s rhythmic energy.
The album’s second CD features its two longest pieces, starting with the 25:11 of “Crossing On A Southern Road (A Memorial For Marion Brown)”.
A play of strings before the propulsive patter of percussion and high hat kicks in ten minutes in couldn’t be more subtle if fully orchestrated. A series of silences and renewals follows, with brooding horns and dissonant electric guitar spiking orchestral textures, before the focus shifts to quietude and individual players’ incisive gestures on cello and harp, with mournful glissandos from violin and double bass. The piece ends with jazz inflections—and brief solos on muted trumpet and flute—amid subdued but restless free association.
“Occupy The World For Life, Liberty And Justice” (Smith’s nod to the Occupy movement) is a portmanteau composition, “shaped in the present moment” of performance and conduction. Yet it sounds more orchestrally structural than “Crossing…”. The musicians operate in string-dominated blocks before Smith solos, tautly, at 08:48. The soundfield behind him then drops to a foggy suspension, out of which massed sound looms with sudden menace, and the thunder of martial drums precedes frenetic agitation. It’s dramatic, but not overwrought. Airy flute leavens gravid brass, reeds and strings; and still those intermittent, militant bursts of percussion thunder.
The TUM Orchestra surge, but never lose their centre. Some 19 minutes in to “Occupy…”, strings clear the air for another shapely solo from Smith. Calming sustains from the strings precede a silence at 23:05. What follows is more abstract, with wiry electric guitar threading through harp-strung clouds of sound and smears of brass, and piano tamped to soften the tone for a graceful violin and cello duet; a bucolic moment over which the orchestra briefly rallies to cast an ominous pall. It’s a fittingly dramatic and ambiguous gesture with which to end.
Verneri Pohjola trumpet and electronics; Jari Hongisto trombone; Kalle Hassinen horn; Kenneth Ojutkangas tuba; Juhani Aaltonen flute, alto flute, bass flute and piccolo; Fredrik Ljungqvist tenor and sopranino saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet; Mikko Innanen alto, soprano and baritone saxophones; Seppo Kantonen piano; Iro Haarla harp; Mikko Iivanainen electric guitar; Kalle Kalima electric guitar; Veli Kujala quarter-tone accordion; Terhi Pylkkänen violin; Niels Thorkild Levinsen violin; Barbora Hilpo viola; Iida-Vilhelmiina Laine cello; Ulf Krokfors double bass; John Lindberg double bass; Janne Tuomi drums and marimba; Mika Kallio drums; Stefan Pasborg drums.
Wadada Leo Smith & Louis Moholo-Moholo – Ancestors + Alexander Hawkins & Louis Moholo-Moholo – Keep Your Heart Straight
Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira – Dark Lady of the Sonets
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and John Tilbury – London Jazz Festival 2012
Wadada Leo Smith Guitar, Brass and Percussion Ensembles at Cafe Oto