Before A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday and The Chicago Symphonies showed up in my mailbox one day, I had thought that the year 2021 already belonged to trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. In addition to his collaborative albums from earlier this year — Sun Beans of Shimmering Light with Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed and Pacifica Coral Reef with Henry Kaiser and Alex Varty — Smith had released two triple albums on the TUM label. Sacred Ceremonies was recorded with bassist Bill Laswell, and the late drummer Milford Graves and Trumpet was entirely Smith on solo trumpet for more than two hours.
Yet, here came another package from TUM containing five CDs with 24 tracks lasting more than three-and-a-half hours! Of course, not all of this was recorded recently. A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday and Trumpet were cut back in 2016, and The Chicago Symphonies was recorded a year prior. Whether or not Smith saved them all for 2021 on purpose, I cannot say, but it sure is nice to have such a quantity of fresh music arrive all at once while we’re all still learning to deal with our new realities. Keep in mind this guy started recording in the 1960s, is on the cusp of 80, and doesn’t appear to be running low on ideas anytime soon.
Smith’s time with TUM has been fruitful. The four-CD album Ten Freedom Summers made him a Pulitzer finalist in 2012, and Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Occupy the World, Ancestors, Rosa Parks: Pure Love, Celestial Weather, and Najwa continued to rack up acclaim. His 2014 release, The Great Lakes Suites, saw him assemble a new quartet that he would later enlist for the four-CD The Chicago Symphonies discussed here (the group is now named the Great Lakes Quartet). For A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday, Smith created a trio that has never performed together before. Smith indeed started working with drummer Jack DeJohnette back in the 1960s, but pianist Vijay Iyer brings an essential dynamic to the music with widely dynamic playing. Plus, Smith didn’t bother looking for a bassist.
Iyer might be 30 years younger than the other members, but the trio that recorded A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday appears to be a genuinely collaborative unit. Smith composed two pieces, Iyer and DeJohnette offered one apiece, and the last track was written collectively. The first three minutes and 53 seconds of the album are just DeJohnette soloing, and it’s not one of those gut-busting drum solos that sounds like some guy going wild on his kit. DeJohnette rolls over his toms and cymbals with subtle purpose, testing the waters before Smith announces his arrival nearly four minutes into his own work “Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet”. This opener and Iyer’s “Deep Time No. 1” are both mysterious slices of rubato that give the impression of a trio feeling one another out. However, the latter song’s use of synthesizers and electric piano (think Miles in the Sky) provides quite the contrast against DeJohnnette’s increasingly staccato attacks.
By the time “The A.D. Opera: A Long Vision with Imagination, Creativity and Fire, a dance opera (For Anthony Davis)” comes around, everyone is ready to groove a little. But you can’t get too settled in just yet, because the groove soon becomes the thing of a Cecil Talyor writing session crossed with an Ornette Coleman jam. The piece’s namesake recorded with Smith on two Tzadik and two Cuneiform releases and one Pi record, so the composer probably does understand Davis’ artistic bent just a little. DeJohnette’s “Song for World Forgiveness” is the most straightforward moment on the album. After six minutes of choppy waters, the storm subsides, and Iyer colors the sky in which Smith’s muted trumpet can soar. “Rocket”, the group composition, is the shortest and funkiest number here. Think Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock with extra drum fills and a Bitches Brew-era trumpet solo, and you’ll get the idea.
In addition to Smith and DeJohnette, the Great Lakes Quartet includes bassist John Lindberg and saxophonist/flutist Henry Threadgill (Threadgill is replaced by Jonathon Haffner on the final disc). You probably don’t need me to tell you that The Chicago Symphonies are not symphonies in the Beethoven sense. Smith’s inspiration for these recordings is Don Cherry’s seminal 1966 work Symphony for Improvisers. Where Cherry’s 19-plus-minute work was written for seven musicians, Smith scales his own operation back to a quartet while expanding the subject material to include 19 movements performed over the course of two hours and 44 minutes. The symphonies, named “Gold”, “Diamond”, “Pearl”, and “Sapphire”, pay tribute to the windy city’s contribution to art and politics.
There’s even a movement dedicated to Threadgill’s old band, “The Rare Air Songs in Sonic Forms and Metrical Folding: Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall and Fred Hopkins”. It must be quite odd playing a song, composed by someone else, that’s about you in a roundabout way. DeJohnette gets named-dropped in the same symphony with a movement named “Jack DeJohnette: A Special Edition, New Directions and the Sonic Rhythm Units”. If you are only slightly aware of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), then you’ll recognize the names tucked away in the titles “Pastoral: Joseph Jarman, As If It Were the Season of Seasons; Sherry Scott, Voice; Thurman Baker, Charles Clark and Christopher Gaddy”, “Muhal Richard Abrams: Levels of Degrees and Light Spectrums; A New Culture: The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians”, “Joyful, Sound and the Numbers; People: The Art Ensemble of Chicago”, “For Alto; In the Orchestra: N-M488; Anthony Braxton: Operas”, and “Leroy Jenkins Mixed Quintet Sonics: Dance Opera”. Smith even gives himself a well-earned victory lap with “Scented Yellow and Red Chrysanthemums; Wadada Leo Smith: The Bell in Silence Resonant and Ten Freedom Summers”. If I spent 35 years writing a four-and-a-half-hour album that almost won the Pulitzer, I would too.
The “Sapphire” symphony stands apart from the rest for two reasons. One is the reason I’ve already mentioned that Jonathan Haffner stands in for Threadgill. The other is that the thematic element is quite different. Focusing on two noteworthy presidents to come out of Illinois, this symphony is the only one to carry a subtitle, “The Presidents and Their Vision for America”. Both Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches are printed in full in The Chicago Symphonies’ thick booklet, the latter greatly dwarfing the former in terms of ink. Since the music has wandered away from the joys of AACM’s formative days and into thorny politics, Smith’s compositions become moodier. After all, the Gettysburg Address was delivered during a profoundly bloody war, and Lincoln’s administration did end in him being assassinated.
Smith uses the third movement to make a 140-plus year leap into the future by tying the two Illinois presidents together. Obama’s speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge brought home the notion that the struggles of the civil rights era aren’t as far behind us as we’d like to think. John Lewis, a civil rights organizer who was badly beaten by police in the march, remained a target of harassment from the previous presidential administration until his dying day. Having said all that, the piece celebrating Obama’s speech is appropriately bluesy.
The music of the first three preceding symphonies carries a slightly different flavor. It could be all of that good old Chicago reminiscing, or it could be Threadgill’s contributions. Henry Threadgill is the kind of musician who can give himself away just by playing two notes on the saxophone, even if he’s playing someone else’s music. That choppy staccato couldn’t be anyone else. Threadgill and DeJohnette enjoyed a reunion some years ago on the Made in Chicago, a live album recorded at Millennium Park with Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Larry Gray. For the “Gold, Diamond”, and “Pearl” symphonies, Smith strikes up noise with his Chicago compatriots that are joyful and telepathic. At age 62, Lindberg is the spring chicken here, but his long list of credentials hardly make that an issue. At times, especially in the Lincoln movements, he can be called on to provide the underlying rhythmic themes. The movement that acknowledges the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Mitchell’s band) gives him an ominous three-note vamp while everyone else solos away happily.
Releasing two ambitious works in mid-November means that many music writers won’t get a chance to process Smith’s two latest albums in time for a year-end wrap. After spending more than 50 years being a working musician, the trumpeter/composer is probably already aware of that risk, and likely does not care too much. Just as Ten Freedom Summers made an enormous critical splash despite not being awarded the Pulitzer, the music of A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday and The Chicago Symphonies speaks for itself — and it speaks volumes. Every drum stroke, every breath blown, and every painting that graces the inside of the booklets carries multitudes. And for being a pair of documents that are geared to ponder history, they are both quite forward-thinking.