October, 1986. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and percussionist Ed Blackwell rode in a car together to Brandeis University just outside of Boston so that they could quickly record a radio broadcast of 10 Smith compositions, most of which Blackwell never had a chance to hear or read beforehand. The two set up and started to perform their modern jazz in an all-too-rare moment of musical telepathy. And for some reason, the master tapes sat around for almost a quarter of a century before being released. The overall quality of the album, The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer, doesn’t explain the long wait, but it does show just how diverse and enjoyable a trumpet and drum program can be if the two musicians have a strong musical bond.
Wadada Leo Smith is no ordinary trumpeter and Ed Blackwell is anything but an ordinary timekeeper. If anything, he sounds like two or three guys sitting behind a bunch of auxiliary equipment. Blackwell’s polyrhythms and other forms of tricky timing are an odd yet delightful match for Smith’s Bitches Brew-era lyricism. Opener “Uprising” is played with all of the confidence possible, and not for one second are the two colleagues wasting time by “feeling each other out”. “Love” switches things to waltz time, but the duo does not miss a trick. The stretched out improvised parts run on a counter-intuitive pattern where Smith is free to run up and down the scale as Blackwell provides colorful flourishes rather than a backbeat. Normally, the safe route would be to keep the rhythm as ordinarily anchored as possible before improvising. But as I said before, this duo isn’t ordinary. The impressive spontaneity of The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer is its driving force and its cornerstone for uniqueness.
The presence of two vocal numbers can raise an eyebrow, though. Not because Wadada Leo Smith is singing—his voice sounds fine—but the melodic similarities between “Seeds of a Forgotten Flower” and “Don’t You Remember” are just too apparent. Smith’s soft crack is palatable, and his doubling up on mbira helps to keep things interesting. Between the two, “Don’t You Remember” is more striking because of Blackwell, who gives such a swift, propulsive jolt to the thing that anyone within transmitting range would have felt their hips begin to move.
These vocal numbers don’t ruin the album; they just briefly divert your attention from the album’s greatest strengths: a full sound, commanding abilities, and the knack to make great music in a state of second nature. Even though Wadada Leo Smith’s name is on all of the copyrights, The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer truly comes alive because of Ed Blackwell. In fact, the CD is dedicated to his memory, and it’s a shame that he never saw its official release. This album is a worthwhile purchase for admirers of Blackwell’s work as well as Smith fans, seeing as only a couple of these compositions made it onto one of his albums in the ‘90s. Let’s call it one of the best new jazz albums from 1986.