Having finally, in 2012, encapsulated in recording his magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers—his testament to the United States civil rights movement, comprising 19 compositions written over a 34-year period—American composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith is now enjoying a phase of prolific, and deservedly high profile activity, performing and recording with ensembles large and small on multiple continents. His creative impulse seems irrepressible.
For Red Hill, Smith is teamed with three other musicians—Jamie Saft, Joe Morris, Balazs Pandi—who are also enjoying a purple patch, notably with a string of releases in different configurations on the London-based Rare Noise label. These guys formed two-thirds of Slobber Pup, in which Morris, ceding bass duties to Trevor Dunn, plays guitar. Morris also plays guitar in Saft’s quintet Plymouth, and bass, with Pandi on drums, behind Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perleman for the latter’s album One. These are all reviewed here, and all are worth checking out.
Anyone familiar with Rare Noise might expect Red Hill to be a jazz-meets-noise experiment in the tradition of Derek Bailey’s brace of Derek & the Ruins collaborations, or Anthony Braxton’s Victoriaville set with Wolf Eyes, but although it has a similar intensity, it’s really a logical extension of Smith’s work with his own electric ensembles, the self-explanatory Yo Miles, and the harmolodic big band Organic. It’s also more compact and concentrated, and much less raw than his date with London’s Treader crew, for example the Abbey Road Quartet with John Coxon, Pat Thomas and Mark Sanders.
At the start of Red Hill, on “Gneiss”, Smith plays sparse and solitary lines that invoke Miles Davis at his most brittle, and his companions enter with almost tender deference. Almost, because Pandi drums with a fat, emphatic sound even when he’s holding back. Smith drops out momentarily as Saft takes the lead, playing rhapsodic flourishes on acoustic piano fed through Echoplex, loosening the vibe while Smith essays pensive interjections, and eventually taking over completely with a questing solo that probes the restlessly discursive patterning of Morris and Pandi.
“Janus Face” commences with Smith sounding yet more blue and bruised, while bass and drums range freely, almost playfully at first, and Saft alternates between open keyboard flourishes and plucking on the piano’s harp. The piece evolves circuitously, via lustrous interplay of brass and organ shimmer and volatile meshes of rubato bass and frictional inside-piano, become gradually tumultuous.
Morris and Pandi duet at the start of “Agpaitic”, with Morris, bowing, creating a gravelly undertow to Pandi’s light, kinetic accents. Saft, now on Fender Rhodes, adds colour in subtle accents. Smith calms the mood with his initial probing phrases, and plays a wonderful, radiant solo over luminous splashes of Fender Rhodes. When Saft drops out, Smith briefly plays over a resurgent rhythm section before also stepping back to let the piece play out as a percussion-stippled bass solo.
Pandi and Morris drive the rumbustious “Tragic Wisdom” over drum rolls and booming bass ostinatos, while Saft extrapolates variations on initially conventional, Monkish post-bop soloing, both fired up by incisive, declamatory trumpet phrases. When Morris thickens the collective texture with harsh bowing, the quartet’s intensity rises and Smith really starts to smoulder. Eventually the performance peaks in intensity and the quartet rein in. Saft and Morris maintain their fulsome, pneumatic bounce but Smith gets more tight-lipped and Saft plays high-register preparations culminating in a harp-like glissando.
After four pieces and around 45 minutes of ardent intensity, there are still two substantial pieces left. “Debts of Honor” begins as a soulful, ruminative piece, with Saft seductively lyrical on acoustic piano and Smith pensively muted. The trumpeter then plays a lovely solo to the accompaniment of cymbals, becoming impassioned when Pandi comes in with bass drum kickers and discursive percussive flurries, all thickened by deep bass textures into which Saft drops chords in fractured clusters, attacking his keys with increasing violence.
Smith signals renewed intent with a sustained, piercing high note to introduce “Arfvedsonite,” and goes on to ride Pandi’s rolling, tribal-feel polyrhythms and Morris’ counter-punch bass lines with declamatory phrasing of searing eloquence. Saft holds back, but drops in a few nicely restrained, Jazzy accents before an unexpected detour into pure abstraction sees him delving back under the piano’s lid to solo more abstractly over rippling cymbals, taut traceries of arco bass, and brief smears of focused sound from Smith.
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet; Jamie Saft piano, Fender Rhodes; Joe Morris double bass; Balazs Pandi drums.
Wadada Leo Smith & TUMO – Occupy the World.
Wadada Leo Smith & Louis Moholo-Moholo – Ancestors
Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira – Dark Lady of the Sonets
Slobber Pup – Black Aces
Plymouth – Plymouth + Ivo Perelman, Joe Morris, Balazs Pandi – One
Wadada Leo Smith Guitar, Brass and Percussion Ensembles at Cafe Oto, August 2012
Buy Red Hill direct from Rare Noise.