[6 November 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
So you’ve made one of the best jazz albums of the year, and that album was a four-CD boxset thematically based on the civil rights movement. What do you do next? Since none of us have been in this situation and probably never will be, we just have to make guesses. My best guess is to keep your head down and go on doing your thing, don’t call attention to your accomplishment(s). And one pretty good way to keep the momentum going without exuding too much effort is to make a straightforward duet album with a world class drummer. Coming off the heels of the stupefying masterpiece (or so I’m told) Ten Freedom Summers, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has teamed up with African percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo to make Ancestors.
Ancestors is very much an in-the-moment album. Most of the songs were prewritten in some fashion, but all of the fine details were captured on the fly. This is the first time that the two men have recorded together, but neither of them are new to the duet album format. Smith has stretched improvisations as far as they could go with many drummers, including a critically acclaimed collaboration with Ed Blackwell that finally saw the light of day last year. Louis Moholo-Moholo has done the same thing with some pretty out-there guys like Cecil Taylor. And as influential and revered as a guy like Wadada Leo Smith remains, it’s Louis Moholo-Moholo that makes Ancestors such a good listen. African drummers can polyphy a beat like no one’s business and dudes like Moholo-Moholo are heavily sought after because of that skill. But Smith swears that Moholo-Moholo is able to manipulate the polyrhythms even further to the point where he is playing a beat that no one has touched before. And why not take Smith’s word for it? He played with Steve McCall way back in the ‘60s. If he says that Louis Moholo-Moholo has made something brand new, then he’s made something brand new.
The drumming differs greatly from song to song. The first track, named after Moholo-Moholo, tips you off to this little fact right away. While Smith takes his time by feeling his way around the long notes, Moholo-Moholo subtly goes back and forth from gently tapping his snare to nudging the inverted cymbals. “No Name in the Street, James Baldwin” sounds more like western jazz since Wadada Leo-Smith gets boppy again and Moholo-Moholo is going more for the full kit this time. Louis Moholo-Moholo hands in one composition, “Siholaro”, throwing in far more blue notes for Smith to play than what had come before.
And I haven’t even gotten to the jams yet, the songs with writing credits given to both men. “Jackson Pollock-Action” and the extended suite “Ancestors”, which is divided into five tracks and running over twenty-five minutes, are truly alive. Seriously, poke them and they just might bleed. The one named for Jack the dripper sonically mimics paint splatters on canvas, especially when it’s coming from Smith’s trumpet. The creativity and ebb-and-flow found inside the title suite is enough to stand on its own as a great little EP, though jazz musicians don’t do EPs.
For an album coming from a pair of musicians that played together once in the ‘70s and never recorded themselves together until now, Ancestors is a damn fine work.