If you are a fan of Wadada Leo Smith, then you are, by default, up for a challenge. The avant-garde trumpet titan has already released seven albums of solo trumpet music throughout his career, one of which was a four-CD box set. If you have been keeping up with the wildly prolific Smith as he approaches his 80th birthday, then it would take more than the solo trumpet triple album Trumpet to get you to flinch. Newcomers might want to test the waters on some of Smith’s large-scale works for TUM like Ten Freedom Summers, The Great Lakes Suite, or America’s National Parks. If you can follow the thread through music like that, then you’re ready for the less-is-more angle to improvisation.
Trumpet was recorded during the summer of 2016 inside St. Mary’s church in Pohja, Finland. It features 14 pieces broken into 28 different tracks and lasts for two hours, 16 minutes, and four seconds. The booklet comes with striking color photographs of Smith during the recording sessions, Smith taking a break, and the church’s exterior in all its 15th-century splendor. There are freeform poems by Smith and his colleague Oliver Lake, extensive liner notes by Smith for each of his new pieces, four paintings by Smith, and an exhaustive biography of Smith by Petri Haussila. There’s a good chance that it will take longer for you to read the booklet than it will to listen to the album.
At a glance, a good portion of Trumpet is set aside for four extended compositions: “Rashomon” (named after the Kurosawa film), “The Great Litany”, “Discourses on the Sufi Path”, and “Family – A Contemplation of Love”. Taken together, they occupy a little more than half of Trumpet’s running time. “Rashomon” is turbulent, verging on problematic with Smith’s musical depiction of a murder scene. If you find that the fifth and final movement, “The Verdict”, offers little-to-no resolution, it only reflects the movie’s ambiguity when telling the story of one murder from four points of view. “What is true can be captured from multiple viewpoints and still be part of the true event. But often truth is such a large phenomenon that it is not easy to be captured from a single vantage point,” writes Smith in the liner notes.
“The Great Litany” is rooted in the spiritual writings of Shaykh Abu al Hasan al-Shadhili, creating a calmer atmosphere for the second disc. “Discourses on the Sufi Path” represents a modern take of Islamic mysticism taught by Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. Musically, these discourses combine the meditative with dervish-like squalls, which is probably the point. After learning about Smith’s reading habits and spiritual practices, it’s plain to see that “Family – A Contemplation of Love” doesn’t really deal with the nuclear unit. “The family is a collective that must have the fortitude to overcome its struggles and to comprehend its own successes, to maintain its collective heart’s center and survive as a nation.” With four movements assigned “Agape”, “Philia”, “Eros”, and an “Agape” reprise, Smith’s trumpet cries out through high, sustained notes for a nation that can’t harness “Unselfish Love” (subtitle to “Agape”).
Sharp-eyed jazz listeners will notice many noteworthy names inserted into some of the pieces’ names like Leroy Jenkins, Reggie Workman, Steve McCall, Amina Claudine Myers, Howard McGhee, Miles Davis, and the late great Albert Ayler. Smith pays reverential tributes all around with prolonged notes that sometimes appear as protracted melodies, the minimalist holy grail.
In addition to his collaboration with Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed, Trumpet is one of two triple albums that Wadada Leo Smith has released in 2021. It is also the most daunting for listening purposes, which is why only devotees of the avant-garde and free improvisation will purchase before sampling. As for everyone else, what do you like about the trumpet? Do you favor the instrument’s versatility to any pure “tone?” Do you think that sound and atmosphere can be potentially more interesting than melody? Do you consider things like Harmon mutes (think Miles Davis) and the use of vibrato to be creative vehicles rather than hurdles for the listening process? If your answer to at least one of these questions was a Yes, then you’ll find Trumpet awaiting you in friendly territory.