This duet between American composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith and British pianist John Tilbury – the latter perhaps best known as a mainstay, alongside founder member Eddie Prévost, of post-70s AMM, but equally renowned as an interpreter of Morton Feldman’s works for piano – was a highlight of the 2012 London Jazz Festival, and it’s a particular delight to be able to revisit it now, courtesy of London-based improv label Treader.
Smith and Tilbury prove to be supremely simpatico, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. Both are adept improvisors with practised analytical intelligence.
In my concert review (which you can read here), I noted the sympathetic acoustic of the Bishopsgate Institute, as well as the intrusion of street noise into the generally rapt silence within the hall: kudos to Treader’s John Coxon for the superb mix on this recording.
The album presents the complete concert programme of four solo performances followed by a long concluding duet, with a minimum of necessary edits.
Tilbury begins with a seventeen-minute solo (“JT Solo”), initially playing the older of two pianos on stage, which once, apparently, belonged to British concert pianist Myra Hess. Tilbury, having added preparations, began by exploring a variety of sonorities, from muffled ‘dead key’ strikes amid high-register trinkles to gamelan-toned harp soundings.
Tilbury has an immaculate ear for effective simplicity. Always patient, he teases out latent musicality by juxtaposing crystalline melodic patterns with subtly wayward irruptions of ‘prepared’ sound (preparations serving the), or framing a succession of satisfying musical miniatures with silence
On the night, Tilbury explained that his improvisation had been influenced by a haunting refrain he’d remembered from a 1939 Sherlock Holmes film. The passing siren that interrupted this reverie has been nicely excised.
The opening notes of Smith’s first of three solo improvisations are clarion calls that amplify the resonances of Tilbury’s more sonorous preparations. The self-explanatory “IWLS Solo 10:35:08” studs silence with declamatory phrases, before turning mournful, like the Last Post bugle call, pending revivification with a late twist of bebop allusion.
Smith’s playing here is muted in both senses. His beautiful, breath-length phrases are saturated with lyrical melancholy.
In my concert review, I said that Smith: “at one point inserted the double reed from a shawn into his trumpet’s mouthpiece to produce a uniquely hazy, piercing tone.” He was actually playing a Zurna (tuiduk), an Anatolian conical oboe with a double reed. It’s heard only in the first minute and a half of “IWLS Solo 08:01:08”, but its piercing tonality infuses Smith’s trumpet sound for the remainder of this parched and thorny improvisation.
Finally, Smith and Tilbury come together on the album’s longest piece, “Bishopsgate Duo 32:18:38”. Tilbury begins on the newer piano, for a fuller, brighter sound, albeit the duet begins with an exchange of brittle melodic fragments. Tilbury then probes the silences in Smith’s muted, bluesy phraseology with increasingly limpid, crystalline vignettes.
From 6:30, Tilbury switches back to the older piano and plays more skittishly, selectively damping notes and moving through a brief passage of relative exuberance into an ever-more muted exploration of preparations. Smith meanwhile lays out, rejoining only to claim a brief solo focusing on pure texture.
From there the duo turns mercurial. Tilbury plays brief, dramatic phrases, once bringing down the keyboard lid with an emphatic snap … and allowing silence to settle. Turning then to an exploration of preparations as tuned percussion, Tilbiry is complimented by long, burred phrases from Smith, and the piece remains anything but predictable.
Played over stormy block chords at 18:30, Smith imbues a dramatically held phase and subsequent soundings with an astringency usually associated with mechanical or electronic noise (that Zurna again, perhaps). Tilbury answers with dramatic staccato chords before laying out, leaving Smith exposed in a plain of silence he etches with tracery. Tilbury comes back at that with bird whistle, in a playful variation on call-and-response.
The final minutes see the duo returning to their earlier mood of muted, crystalline introspection. Tilbury, in particular, plays with real delicacy, but it’s Smith who ultimately fashions an ending with a twist of melancholy fit for a film noir end titles.
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith trumpet, Zurna; John Tilbury piano, prepared piano, bird whistle.
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and John Tilbury – London Jazz Festival 2012.
John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, John Tilbury – Exta.
Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suite
Wadada Leo Smith and Louis Moholo-Moholo – Ancestors + Alexander Hawkins and Louis Moholo-Moholo – Keep Your Heart Straight.
Other Treader titles that fans of Wadada Leo Smith ought to check out include John Coxon/Wadada Leo Smith Brooklyn Duos (TRD7) and Leo Smith’s Abbey Road Quartet (TRD9), with Coxon, Pat Thomas and Mark Sanders.
Buy Bishopsgate Concert and other Treader titles direct from Treader.