It’s only been a matter of weeks since I commended Wadada Leo Smith’s white-hot form and productivity in my review of Red Hill, his intense quartet recording for Rare Noise; but it’s already time to catch up already, and his new opus was cut in the stellar company of Henry Threadgill, John Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette.
The Great Lakes Suite was inspired by the lakes so called, which formed in North America 10,000 years ago as retreating ice sheets carved gouges in the land that subsequently filled with melt water. In his album notes, Smith says: “My score reflects the idea of the flatness of the lakes´ surfaces. (This) does not, however, imply for me stasis or inactivity. What I wish to express is the simultaneous notions of the lakes being flat and their volatility.” By which I guess he references the time-lapse violence of geological processes, as much as ecological evolution: it’s a nice metaphor for this music, either way.
The suite comprises six compositions, each of ten to twenty minutes duration, presented on two CDs. Each piece conforms to Smith’s idea of surface flatness and innate volatility: there are no solo outbursts or collective climaxes, yet the performances are highly charged, and the quartet exploits the space and freedom afforded by Smith’s expansive conception with thoughtful, focused urgency. It’s best to dip into this set one lake at a time.
The first and longest piece, “Lake Michigan” is bracketed by brief unison phrases from Threadgill’s alto sax and Smith’s trumpet pitched over restive percussion and nimbly explorative plucked contrabass. The rhythm section combine more fiercely when Threadgill takes an early, chewy early solo, but they implode, leaving a momentary silence. Smith then solos plaintively over bowed bass, with DeJohnette adding subtle coloration before the others step back, allowing him to kindle rim hits into a skeletal rhythm. Lindberg and Dejohnette then alternate solos with more agitative friction before brass and reeds catch the fire, reprising and play variations on those opening unison fanfares.
Smith says he conceived of the suite in “multiple sectional forms”, so Henry Threadgill is ideally suited to its interpretation. One of music’s true greats, whether as instrumentalist, composer and bandleader, Threadgill’s key projects of the 80s and 90s were all sectionally-structured ensembles. The short-lived X-75 comprised four basses, four woodwinds and a vocalist. The Sextett (rec. 1982-1988) was a double trio comprising pairs of strings, brass and percussion. And Very Very Circus, Threadgill’s signature band of the early 90s, featured his own reeds plus brass alongside two guitars, two tubas and drums.
Although Threadgill’s bands of the mid 90s onwards—notably Make A Move (1995-2001) and Zooid (2001-2011)—aren’t structured in this way, their unusual instrumentations reflect the same unique concept of sonic organisation, which Smith’s sectional protocol on this date fits more or less literally like a dream.
It’s best to soak in such powerfully immersive music. The impressions that linger from my latest immersion include the sinewy percussive probing and surface agitation of “Lake Ontario”, choppy under Smiths commanding solo, but becalmed by Threadgill’s airy fluting; the stormy, kinetic brightness of “Lake Superior”, all light-shaft brass declamations, fizzing cymbals and undertow bass currents; the easeful intensity of the down-tempo “Lake Huron”, which begins the second CD; Threadgill’s solo flute introducing the invigoratingly open vista of “Lake Erie”, and the serial responses of DeJohnette (on brushes) and Lindberg (bowing). Smith’s probing solo with plucked bass accompaniment—one of his most resourceful on record—develops into a mettlesome trio when DeJohnette comes in, but the group then eases back. They allow each other plenty of time and space to embroider, and often encroach on silence. The second CD, on balance, is more contemplative than the first.
The extensive annotations to this set include poems penned by Smith in dedication to each member of the quartet, including himself. He accurately portrays his own sound as: “Finding its flow / Slowly.” There’s also a poem in response to the suite: “Exploration in all directions / Sound locked by rhythm,’ which is similarly incisive. It’s particularly good to hear Threadgill in such a simpatico relationship with Jack DeJohnette, a peer, master percussionist, and animator of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew era music, Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, and innumerable other projects besides. Incredibly, I believe this is the first time they have met in the studio.
DeJohnette and Smith first played together in 1960s Chicago, and forty years later the drummer was the leader´s first choice for his Golden Quartet. On the Great Lakes Suite, the drummer’s partnership with John Lindberg is marvellously lucid. The bassist is around fifteen years younger than his colleagues, who were all born in the early 40s. but he has the closest working relationship with Smith, and he’s vital here. Witness the subtly funky lope he insinuates into the last four minutes—essentially a coda—to “Lake St. Clair”.
Although the relatively recently-formed Lake St. Clair isn’t usually regarded as one of the Great Lakes, Smith opted to include it, and dedicated “Lake St. Clair” to another peer and “another great Lake”, saxophonist/poet/composer Oliver Lake. Fittingly perhaps, the body of the piece is pretty much Great Lakes redux, a mid-pace recapitulation that reminds where we’ve been on this long journey. It finally fades on DeJohnette’s late backbeat strut, a response to Lindberg’s elasticity. You get the sense they could kick this into eternity.
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet; Henry Threadgill alto saxophone, flute, bass flute; John Lindberg double bass; Jack DeJohnette drums.
Wadada Leo Smith – Red Hill
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
Buy The Great Lakes Suite direct from TUM.