Wadada Leo Smith is having a great run in the critical eye. In 2016 he topped many polls with his meditative but free composing and presentations, collaborating with the likes of Vijay Iyer and making jazz move in interesting new directions. He has long been fascinated with the music and legacy of Miles Davis, an obvious brass inspiration, and he was among the first to revive real interest in Davis’s later period of playing.
Of course, just about every modern jazz musician also counts pianist/composer Thelonious Monk as a forerunner and inspiration. Monk was modern in 1941, and he still sounds modern today—no one has ever found a way to be hipper or more singular than Monk. Monk played music that danced and laughed, that shot you with introspection and mystery too.
Smith’s music, of late, has been mostly in a super-serious vein. That’s not a critique, exactly, but it’s an observation that very much made me want to hear Smith’s take on a figure as puckish as Thelonious Monk. Smith’s brass sounds can be wonderfully varied, so I suppose I was expecting a program that would poke and pounce a bit, that would get weird and get wonderful. Even if a full album of solo trumpet sounds like it will be maybe not taxing but at least requiring patience.
Well, yeah, it requires patience. Not because it is harsh or avant-garde, tonally off-putting or strange. Rather, this is a recital of eight solo trumpet performances that are just kind of flat, even, and dull. The Monk tunes are redeemed by the fact that they contain tonally interesting renderings of
great melodies. “Reflections” is played as a slow, Harmon-muted performance, and Smith wisely plays the even, step-wise melody with a liberal application of variations between the known phrases. The improvisation, however, is pretty tedious stuff. Slllllllow and deliberate and when the melody returns you feel the relief of some rhythmic variation because the improvised section was positively dirge-like.
“Crepuscule with Nellie” is taken at the same tempo, a careful and cautious pace, I would call it. Smith’s open horn sounds nice, of course, particularly in the very low register. The improvisation here interests me more, as Smith plays with some cool intervals, though keeping the tempo in molasses with not much variation in rhythmic phrasing. “Ruby, My Dear” fares a bit better because the (again) super-slow tempo is offset with some phrases that get more ragged, short rips downward, for example, that take an otherwise slickly paved road and give it some texture. But let’s be clear: this is almost ten minutes of solo trumpet that is not very exciting.
The last Monk tune is “Round Midnight”, typically played as a ballad with a dramatic, cadenza-like opening section. Smith plays it quite faithfully on his open horn, and the melody’s sheer beauty and originality shine through. You get to listen to it, just one chorus, for almost four minutes, though. The variations here are wonderful, however, keeping the melody close at hand for reference, but with coolly original portions throughout, cracked phrases, blue tones, shuffles down a blues scale. It is the best thing here.
Smith adds four original compositions, each sounding like a pure improvisation. They are more daring, without a doubt, as when “Monk and His Five-Point Rink at the Five Spot Cafe” alternates shouts and shaking figures at the start. Smith is clearly trying to solve the dilemma of how to make a purely improvised piece by a solo horn seem like a unified “composition” rather than an aimless stroll. On “Five Spot”, the unifying motif seems to be that shaking figure, two notes toggled between gruffly. It becomes a bit of a trill around 5:20, giving way to a heraldic figure, then some partial scales. It’s there at the last minute as well. This is the best of those pieces for me.
Two of the improvisations are titled “Adagio” with a subtitle, and they are (of course) slower and, for my ears, less unified by motif or method. The first, “Monkishness – A Cinematic Vision of Monk Playing Solo Piano”, ends with a gorgeous demonstration of trumpet tone. But it says
nothing to me about Monk’s solo playing. “Monk, the Composer, in Sepia – A Second Vision” finds Smith playing gorgeously-toned Harmon mute, but again the performance is true to being “adagio” (that is: SLOW) and does little to evoke its putative subject, at least for me.
“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery” promises more fun? Recreation? Sport? Humor? In spots, it delivers, with Smith creating stabs and swirls. I can imagine, perhaps, a hot dog wrapper caught in the wind off the outfield while the old New York Mets of the 1960s bobble an otherwise easy catch. But, at the end of almost an hour of nothing but trumpet, most of it exceedingly slow and lugubrious, the playfulness here is easy to miss.
Wadada Leo Smith, of course, is not trying to entertain me or get me to tap my toes. I certainly know that. This is a piece of serious art, and it is an attempt to very deliberately look at the melodies and moods of a master. I will listen to this “Round Midnight” again—maybe even again and again—but diving back into the rest of the program is unlikely. The water is so still and even, and the interest it holds for me seems not just limited but limited in how it adds anything to my sense of Thelonious Monk or his art.
It should be noted that Wadada Leo Smith releases another recording with this one,
Nawja, a full electric band record with four guitarists, drums, and percussion, densely funky electric bass. It is danceable, funky, rich. Reflection and Meditations on Monk is not an indictment of the brilliant Smith, merely confirmation that even a long and brilliant career has its lows.