We are still feeling the ripple effect of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. This is what I catch myself thinking when I listen to Dark Lady of the Sonnets. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has always had an affinity for Davis’ flirtation for the deep end as his Yo Miles! collaboration with Henry Kaiser testifies. So if you treat Sketches of Spain as a cornerstone for all the grand experimentation in jazz, Smith has taken all of the subsequent releases like In A Silent Way, Big Fun and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, rolled them up and made his own brand of gravy. You could almost say that what he is has done with his trumpet is similar to what Davis did with his: shop it around to different styles and ensembles, don’t stand in the way of your hired help, and try your best not to repeat yourself. His 2009 double album Spiritual Dimensions captured that attitude in a nutshell. Now with his Mbira project, he’s off and running with a new combination reminiscent of Miles Davis’ global awareness.
Mbira is made up only of Smith, pipa/vocalist Min Xiao-Fen and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. And, oddly enough, they sound like just the right match for an east-meets-west musical summit. Xiao-Fen’s background is mostly in classical Chinese music but has made room for edgier things in her schedule including Carl Stone and Björk. Smith and akLaff have been on the same page, musically speaking, since the mid-70s. These two guys have been chiseling away at the traditional definition of jazz longer than some of our readers have been alive, so their bond may threaten to be clique-ish to an outsider. Yet Min Xiao-Fen is welcomed into their partnership, importing a musician with a different instrument that makes all the difference on Dark Lady of the Sonnets.
The pipa, in case you didn’t know, is like a Chinese lute. And Min Xiao-Fen, in case you didn’t know, can sing like she’s steadily going mad. “Blues: Cosmic Beauty,” Smith’s compositional love letter to God, lets her moan and growl like she’s slowly trying to exorcise a demon. She can also sing like an aloof ghost, like she does on the title track. Strangely enough, Wadada Leo Smith wrote it as a tribute to Billie Holiday, and Xiao-Fen’s recitation of this poem that refers to “A voice larger than our world” seems to barely register. It’s almost as if she doesn’t want to mess with competing against Holiday.
The song patterns on this album are, to say the least, intriguing. The above-mentioned title track and the opener “Sarah Bell Wallace,” written for Smith’s late mother, appear to be split in two. In both cases, the songs start out languid, tranquil, searching for a meaning larger than itself. But somewhere near their halfway points, both pick up steam in their own peculiar ways. You can’t quite call it kicking out the jams — more like boarding a three-passenger rocket to the next star. The two songs I have yet to mention are “Mbira” and “Zulu Water Festival,” the longest and the shortest tracks, respectively. “Mbira,” making good on its name, pulls all of the album’s elements together. Smith and Xiao-Fen complement each other easily, right down to the rapid flutters. It’s hard to tell if Pheeroan akLaff is pushing and pulling the trio along or if he’s just following the general flow of traffic, but that’s the virtue of having such a sympathetic drummer.
And that’s probably the greatest selling point of Mbira’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets — the trumpet, drums and a Chinese lute can glide forward as a fully functional unit. As listening experiences go, this album fits into the trends of fringe music all too easily. But that also goes to show you that not everyone can do this so effortlessly.