America’s National Parks (Cuneiform), a suite of six new pieces dedicated by composer Wadada Leo Smith to America’s protected areas, begins with the fittingly epic “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c.5000 BC”.
This 30 minute opus begins with Smith in fine lip, recording a smoky, stately trumpet soliloquy against a stillness of slow-bowed cello and brittle cymbal patter, with piano and bass coming into play in spare assertions. Flares of aggression raise the heat here and there, but the pace is determinedly deliberate, and the playing declarative, comprised of short phrases essayed with anthemic majesty.
But hang on, the alert among you are thinking, the Mississippi isn’t in a national park; and that’s true. The album is only partially inspired by Smith’s “research” into the parks system.
Smith says: “You don’t really need to visit a park to write about a park,” and I suppose that is true, too, if your focus is not the park or “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein (nps.gov)” in any experiential or otherwise substantive sense, but your own musings, a-priori assumptions and overriding concerns. Smith says:
“My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens,” not the parks per se. This expands his remit to embrace New Orleans, primarily as the repository of Buddy Bolden’s mythologised ragtime legacy; the Mississippi river, envisaged as “a memorial site which was used as a dumping place for black bodies by hostile forces”; and the idea of a national park in memory of late African-American musicologist Eileen Southern.
In ideation and effect, then, much of America’s National Parks is postscript to Smith’s already expansive, explicitly civil rights-themed Ten Freedom Summers, a daunting and complexly stimulating opus, recorded by an iteration of his Golden Quintet plus chamber orchestra. Here, a single cellist, Ashley Walters, joins Quintet mainstays Anthony Davis (piano), John Lindberg (bass) and Pheeroan akLaaf (drums).
akLaaf is unassumingly phenomenal throughout, holding everything together on that journey down “The Mississippi River”, ahead of an irruption of abrasive frenzy at 19:00. Six minutes further in, and Walters scribes her own, superbly gravid, arco solo. The music’s rich in such standout moments, but they are always in the service of Smith’s conceptual arc, which here returns to source with another fine trumpet solo.
The other pieces include a dedication to New Orleans that overruns 20 minutes, two more inspired by Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks that take only quarter hours to enjoy, and those dedicated to Eileen Jackson and Sequoia and Kings Canyon, which are shorter still.
“New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” is the first piece on the first CD, its deliberate, almost solemn tone offset by brisk percussives, which are particularly effective behind the first of Smith’s incisive muted solos. Anthony Davis also plays a fine solo, his dramatic, unaccompanied piano flourishes revelling in the space, and Lindberg fully exploits the liberties of expressive ply in the group dynamic. Walters then plays against the bassist’s grain in developing her own songlike cadences.
Smith, as composer, excels in marshalling players in this way, as freely expressive but interacting individualists. “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National park” is essentially a gracile, fragile piece that draws on all their collective resources of sensitivity, but there’s still scope for speculation, bold assertion and generative friction – music as lived expression.
The quintet finds its starkest clarities in “Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872”, where tarn-cool playing coexists with moments of vivid expression. Pulsing and vibrant, it’s capped by Smith’s most vivid and assured solo.
On CD2, picking up from “The Mississippi River”, the short (6:46) and deliberately-paced “Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890” begins with a quizzical trumpet/piano duet, with drums and strings joining them in due course for a tense, knotty exposition cut through by trinkling pianism: a metaphor, perhaps, for nature finding its way. Smith takes another fine, smouldering solo, with apparent nods to Don Cherry.
“Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” picks up directly from “Sequoia/Kings Canyon”. If anything, it’s even more tense and thoroughgoing, before lapsing into a long near-silence in deference to Smith’s plangent, reflective musing. Solemn flourishes of neo-classical orchestration subsequently incorporate emphatic passages of kit drumming: the music’s as systematic and changeable as the weather.
America’s National Parks is more focused than Ten Freedom Summers (no criticism of the latter), more sober than Smith’s similarly nature-themed The Great Lakes Suite, as recorded with Lindberg, Jack DeJohnette and Henry Threadgill.
Instead of the relaxedness of that fine quartet, this new collection boasts a clarity and precision in execution more in keeping with formal chamber music. Yet it’s imbued both with Smith’s tonal boldness and the earthy connotations of the quintet’s deep jazz roots, and its vivid definition makes it curiously accessible. This may be Smith’s best work to date.
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet; Anthony Davis piano; Ashley Walters cello; John Lindberg bass; Pheeroan akLaaf drums.
Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suite.
Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World, a suite dedicated to the Occupy movement, recorded with a 22-piece orchestra of Nordic improvisers.
Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith – a cosmic rhythm with each stroke.
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and John Tilbury – Bishopsgate Concert.
Wadada Leo Smith – Red Hill.
Wadada Leo Smith and Louis Moholo-Moholo – Ancestors.
Buy America’s National Parks via Cuneiform.