At this point, the long arc of fascinating music from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith can’t be summarized at the top of a review. He goes back to the early days of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he has been both a student and a contemporary of masters such as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Muhal Richard Abrams, and he has continued to be a vital creative force to this very day. He is entering his late 70s and shows no signs of slowing down.
I’m not a fan of all his work, but the variety is so great that I’m also a huge fan. His “Golden Quartet” recordings present a viable and different language for small group “jazz” interaction. His re-examination (beginning in the 1990s, with guitarist Henry Kaiser) of Miles Davis’s electric music (1969-1975, particularly) was the first serious investigation of that music’s grammar and brilliance. He has played solo trumpet with interest, he looks at tone as a critical part of creative music, and his compositions can be arresting.
Najwa was released on the same day as Solo – Reflections and Meditations on Monk, and it as glittering and fascinating as Monk was monotone and slow. As an artist, Smith stretches boundaries.
The setting on Najwa is a swampy octet that includes four electric guitars, Bill Laswell’s almost orchestral electric bass, Pherooan akLaff on drums, and Adam Rudolph on percussion. The guitarists are Kaiser, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith, and Michael Gregory Jackson. Laswell also had a hand in mixing the sound, which is a swirl of layers and density—you truly don’t know how many guitars you are hearing at any one time (or who’s playing them), and the electric bass is a bed of deep, echoing Mutron joy.
The Najwa band is not a direct analogue to the Yo, Miles! bands that Smith led with Kaiser, but it is close. There are certainly a few swampy funk grooves here that could only exist because Miles had established the template. The music here, however, is arranged in four long suites that are each dedicated to three musicians partly descended from Miles (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Ronald Shannon Jackson), and also to Billie Holiday. There is just one short sketch, the title track, that sits in the middle of recording. “Najwa” uses the Davis Harmon-mute sound, singing freely over a wash of acoustic guitar, synthy guitar washes, and bass tones emerging barely in the background. It is a tone poem, I suppose, a palate cleanser at the center of a relative storm.
The suites, by contrast, move in waves or episodes that present contrasting moods. “Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in A Love Supreme” begins as a skittering electric maelstrom of busy percussion and jabbering, rubbery bass from Laswell. The melody is played by Smith on open horn, often in unison with one of the guitars. The other guitars are very subtly there, not playing chords most of the time but in washes or sudden effects. The melody moves with a slow deliberation—owing seemingly nothing to Coltrane but suggesting something of the majesty of that saxophonist’s demeanor. The improvisation is a collective effort, with one guitar choking out a short statement, a period for the rhythm section, then Smith creating a new statement, then some collective playing until another guitar player steps up, choking out a brilliant blues statement. The churn of it all is like a river running over rocks, creating eddies and rapids and hydraulics. At the 3/4 point, the band quiets, resets, and begins a spare funk groove over which Smith jabs and bounces with open horn, a focused coda.
“Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: a Resonance Change in the Millennium” begins with a strange intervallic melody for trumpet and one guitar, which kicks quickly into a chattering groove that allows akLaff to solo constantly even as the guitars take over for a set of screaming, distorted statements. Smith is more like the ringmaster here than anything else – poking the proceedings, corralling the guitars, riding up above Laswell’s ground-layer of sound. akLaff takes over at 6:00 before the band shifts into a moody electric ballad for Part Two of the Coleman piece.
It’s interesting to think about what makes these suites into apt tributes to their namesakes. The improvisational language in the first, frantic part of the Coleman piece sounded “harmolodic” to me, which is to say that it uses the kind of melodic shapes and contrasts that Coleman trained his bands to use. To the extent that this “idea”, when Coleman executed it, seemed like it might just be their style, it is interesting to hear it recreated. Part Two is the Davis melodic and textural language at first, but Smith always puts his stamp on that over time—more likely to wander off the tonality or to make his tone more jagged and raw.
But there are problems with this recording too. Listen to start of “Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of a Rare Beauty” and start of the Coltrane piece and tell me how distinct you think they are. The bass lines are different, the melodies, yes, but the rhythms and textures are so similar that it’s hard to hear them as authentic portraits of their subjects. This is Smith’s chosen idiom for Najwa, and far be it from me to say it is too samey-same, but even as the improvisations take these pieces in different directions, it feels too similar even at the end, as the last two minutes settle down into a more spare, open sound focused on Laswell’s bass.
Smith saves the best—and the clearest contrast—for last. “The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers” is certainly a specific image. But it works as well as anything here because it is more original, less likely to lean back on Coleman’s or Davis’s language and concept. The opening is spare, and (let’s be honest) Smith’s lonely-trumpet-that-is-lyrical-in-open-space sound is always going to sound like Miles Davis. But the soundspace here is something we haven’t much heard before: both rich in electric washes and highlighted by spare licks on acoustic guitar that suggest some of the moody explorations from ECM artists like Ralph Towner or John Abercrombie.
I love Wadada Leo Smith’s music because I believe it to be some of the best stuff looking back at the history of the music, particularly the history that has tended to be ignored. This band is surprisingly nimble and light on its feet, given the four guitarists, but they seem all to have a different lane and play with restraint other than when they sky-rockets solos. Smith has found a way to take the Miles Davis electric orchestra of the 1970s and turn it into a disciplined group that can be pastel or psychedelic, as necessary. The question is: can he turn this band toward a future that doesn’t require quite so much Miles Davis in its DNA?