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Wadada Leo Smith
The Emerald Duets
TUM Records TUM Box 006

Few musicians have been as well served by a record label as Wadada Leo Smith has with his relationship with the Finish label TUM Records. Starting in 2011, with the release of Dark Lady of the Sonnets with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, the label has released an annual missive. Projects have ranged from duos with Louis Moholo-Moholo and John Lindberg, his Great Lakes Quartet (with Henry Threadgill, John Lindberg, and Jack DeJohnette), Najwa (a multi-guitar electric group), the solo Reflections and Meditations on Monk, a collaboration with the Finish large ensemble TUMO, and his heartfelt Rosa Parks: Pure Love suite. To celebrate Smith’s eightieth birthday, the label upped things with the release of multiple expansive boxed sets, from the initial solo Trumpet, a historic session with Bill Laswell and Milford Graves, The Chicago Symphonies with the Great Lakes Quartet, and a trio with Vijay Iyer and DeJohnette. The celebration ends with a 7-disc release of his string quartets as well as The Emerald Duets, a 5-disc set of duos with drummers akLaff, Andrew Cyrille, Han Bennink, and DeJohnette.

The trumpet/drum duo format is nothing new for Smith (here augmented by piano in some of the pieces.) He has previously recorded duos with Ed Blackwell, Sabu Toyozumi, Adam Rudolph, Gunter "Baby" Sommer, DeJohnette, Moholo-Moholo, and Graves, and his choice for this set certainly draws on those experiences along with past histories with the respective partners. He’s worked with Pheeroan akLaff since the 1970s in his group New Dalta Ahkri. Smith and Han Bennink were participants at Derek Bailey’s 1977 Company Week in London. Smith and Andrew Cyrille have worked together for at least two decades, recording in the late 1990s as part of an ensemble led by John Lindberg. And while their time in Chicago in the 1960s didn’t overlap, Smith and DeJohnette were both frequent residents at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock and likely crossed paths there. The first session of the set was recorded with Han Bennink in Amsterdam in 2014. That kicked off the idea to record duo sets with the other drummers and the rest of the sessions were recorded within a fairly short time, from September 2019 with Cyrille, December of that year with akLaff, and early January 2020 with DeJohnette. In lesser hands, five CDs of trumpet/drums duos would become a blur. But here, each duo brings out unique facets in both partners.

The set kicks off with the duo with akLaff, titled Litanies, Prayers and Meditations with titles that range from a paean dedicated to Keith Jarrett, a four-part meditation on Masivi, a spiritual text by the Persian poet Rumi which is a cornerstone of Sufism, and “The Patriot Act, Unconstitutional and a Force that Destroys Democracy,” versions of which appear on the duos with Cyrille and DeJohnette. Of all of the drummers, akLaff’s playing is most imbued with a free sense of pulse which accentuates the meditative phrasing of Smith’s playing. Listen to “First Meditation from the Heart: the Beauty, the Beloved,” starting with spare piano notes and hushed toms and cymbals and proceeding with collective introspection as Smith switches to trumpet. The evolving miniatures of “Rumis Masnavi: A Sonic Expression” are compact studies in the give-and-take between akLaff’s parries and Smith’s soaring free lyricism. “A Sonic Litany on Peace” begins with Smith’s keening muted trumpet and akLaff’s pared back drums, closing with Smith moving to piano playing with meticulous placement of notes colored by his choice of damping the strings to minimize the sustain of the instrument against akLaff’s feints and bobs.

The disc with Andrew Cyrille is titled Havana, Cuba with pieces dedicated to Ilhan Omar and Jeanne Lee along with trumpeters Donald Ayler, Tomas Stańko, and Mongezi Feza. Starting with a version of “The Patriot Act ...,” Cyrille proves himself a particularly open player, often placing cymbals in the fore of his approach to the tuned kit. This version of the piece is a study in free dialogue, eliciting spirited playing from Smith colored with burrs and smears and opening to an extended solo by the drummer with a darting attack and methodical sense of phrasing. “Donald Ayler: The Master of the Sound and Energy Forms,” features some of the most heated playing of the set, with the metallic sizzle of the drummer’s cymbals inciting Smith to flights of declaratory intensity. “A Rainbow Sonic Ark for Tomasz Ludwik Stańko (1942-2018)” muses on the free flights of the dedicatee, moving between fleet, animated runs, and muted reflections. The disc closes with “Mongezi Feza,” a poignant ode to the South African and a tinge of reverb on the recording reinforces the sense of reverence of the duo’s playing.

Mysterious Sonic Fields, the third disc of the set, captures Smith’s meeting with Han Bennink in a studio session in Amsterdam. Bennink, the consummate free player is, of the drummers chosen, the most grounded in pre-1960s jazz drum traditions and that comes through. Of course, these are abstracted and refracted bringing to mind Smith’s meeting with Ed Blackwell. It’s also worth noting that, on this disc, in contrast to the sets with Cyrille and akLaff, most of the tunes are collective improvisations credited to both players. “Largo: A Mysterious Love Sonic” is a slow simmer, with restrained playing from Bennink against Smith’s stirring theme. Then things kick up with “Louis Armstrong in New York City and Accra, Ghana” which charges in with roiling spattered snare rolls that swing like mad then opens to freely sauntering swagger, eliciting searing retorts from Smith. “Albert Einstein: Particles of Light, a Study in Perception” is the most abstracted piece on the disc, with Smith’s opening cries sounding against the drummer’s low rumbles, methodically building momentum while maintaining a lissome pace. While more angular and pointillistic, “Ornette Coleman at the World’s Fair of Science and Art in Fort Worth, Texas” also digs into those free-bop tendencies and Smith responds in kind. Again, the disc ends with a quietly reverent ode to a departed South African musician, this time bassist Johnny Dyani. The muted shuffle proves an apt remembrance of Dyani’s buoyant music.

Duos with Jack DeJohnette are captured on the final two discs of the set. The fourth, titled Freedom Summer, the Legacy stands apart in that both of the participants also play keyboards and the harmonic layer brings out a more compositional focus to the playing. Opening with a collective improvisation, they then move to “Freedom Summer” which starts with Smith on brooding piano which DeJohnette colors with cymbal slashes and simmering toms, evolving to crying intensity as Smith enters on trumpet. The trumpet player’s theme hints at sacred music, bringing out reflective playing by both. “Meditation: A Sonic Circle of Double Piano Resonances” is just that, with Smith’s piano playing resounding against the glassy timbres of DeJohnette on Fender Rhodes. Their 20-minute take on “The Patriot Act ...” is almost double the length of other pieces across all five discs. The drummer starts with a slow, open free improvisation and Smith doesn’t enter until almost 4 minutes in. From there, the two stretch out with sections of tight interaction and looser segments where one or the other comes to the fore. There aren’t solos per se, but rather a constantly shifting focus between the two. The final disc is dedicated to the five-part Paradise: The Gardens and Fountains, an astute close to the set, giving the two the time and space to explore Smith’s considered, lyrical form. Here, sticking to just trumpet and drums, the two move with attentive poise across the 38 minutes of the suite.

While the sessions that comprise this boxed set were recorded a few years ago, it is clear evidence that Smith continues the probing creativity he began in 1968 with his initial appearance on Anthony Braxton’s Three Compositions of New Jazz and pioneered with his seminal series of recordings from New Haven in the early 1970s on his Kabell record label. Listeners have had the benefit of the dedication of labels like Cuneiform and Tzadik to follow Smith’s wide-ranging projects. TUM has picked that up and one looks forward to their documentation of the projects Smith continues to develop.
–Michael Rosenstein


Günter Baby Sommer + The Lucaciu 3
Intakt CD384

Prior to 1989 Dresden-born Baby (as in Dodds) Sommer was arguably East Germany’s most prominent improviser. Some Soviet-bloc players seemed to lose purpose after the Wall came down that year, but Sommer kept working right along; he already had plenty of contacts on the other side. As Karawane demonstrates, his playing has personality. He likes to run with complex walloping patterns to whip a band. Stomping the old folk tune “Dunkle Wolken” (Dark Clouds), Baby’s snapback full-kit tattoo seems to echo itself. His attack is typically crisp; he can get that dried-peas-poured, every stroke distinct effect, even on a choked or muffled tom, that is a marker of European free drummers. He also likes bright pingy sounds from cymbals, including a tiny piercing one he’ll use to cap a phrase or tune: the bell at the end of a typewritten line. His long solo intro to “Unter Jedem Dach Ein Ach” lays out his sonic palette and conversational approach; for the first couple of minutes it’s also at conversational volume, with full rhythmic authority. He’s not a ride-cymbal rider, but for swing cred, hear his setting of Hugo Ball’s dada sound poem “Karawane.” Singing it, Sommer makes those luxuriant schwittersy syllables swing in a way other sound-poem interpreters decidedly don’t, but then he has his own eight-beat Tunisian Night syncopated drums to boot him along.

Karawane teams him with a trio of two-generations-younger German brothers conveniently lacking a drummer: Antonio (alto), Simon (piano) and Robert (bass) Lucaciu, at least a couple of whom were born in the late 1980s, who started playing early – their parents are violinists – and who each pursue non-family projects also. To hear how well they and Sommer all get on there’s Simon’s backbeat bounce “Pan” with supple leapfrogging from piano and alto in torrid, skillet-dancing Arthur Blythe mode, bass meantime weaving around the walloping. Lucaciu 3 are comfortable moving between swing and open time, and sound more than happy to have Baby on board.

The Lucacius do like to get quiet, as on Robert’s “AEther” and Simon’s “Dialogue,” and the drummer may lay back and let them set the terms. “AEther” begins with Sommer’s backwards gong effects: mallet a cymbal from quiet to loud then quickly cut it off. Tethered to an ascending alto line, the piece moves through a few related moods: a music-boxy spackled soundscape, then a slow tempo sleepwalk with Baby fluttering on the tubs, leading to time-suspended stasis, and then something like a straight melody statement. The meander “Dialogue,” built around a tricky little bass ostinato played a couple of slightly different ways, also moves from an open texture to a fuller one.

At the other extreme there’s Robert’s obstreperous “Impressions of Little Bird,” which sounds like an Ayler fanfare with chromatic digressions: “Ghosts” remade as a showtune. Sommers drives his own “Samba Postouron” with another slapback beat; you can hear the Rio Carnaval march rhythms behind it, even if the melody’s closer to a Rollins calypso. But there are wrinkles: all four musos slip out of and back into time play, over and over, maybe too much. (It’s only four and a half minutes.) At one point Antonio injects a little laughing alto, as if to distance himself a little from the hijinx – the kind of “ironic” move that gives some free music partisans the fits.

The exit processional is Sommer’s “Hymnus,” rendered vaguely gospelly with rolling piano chords, a pentatonic line whose lowest pitch is oft repeated: a short simple tune you can embellish or play straight as needed. Antonio gets the right church-alto rasp, confirming his chameleonic quality – he’ll be whoever you need him to be. (But what does he want?)

This project looks like someone’s smart idea to call attention to the talented Lucacius. Seems to’ve worked.
–Kevin Whitehead


Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage
ESP-Disk’ ESP5073

Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage is the second album by WeFreeStrings, following the group’s debut, Fulfillment (self-released, 2018). A clever homage to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “We Free Kings,” WeFreeStrings is a string-oriented jazz collective led by New York-based violist and composer Melanie Dyer that currently features Dyer, violinists Charles Burnham and Gwen Laster, cellist Alexander Waterman, bassist Ken Filiano, and percussionist Michael Wimberly. Active since 2011, the ensemble’s personnel roster varies in size; for this session, Filiano and Laster play with Dyer throughout the date, while the extended tracks that bookend the album add Burnham, Waterman, and Wimberly.

Though classically trained, Dyer found inspiration for her own work in the Creative Improvised Music of other African American string players like Billy Bang, Leroy Jenkins, and Michael White. After stints playing with Frank Lacey and Salim Washington, Dyer “wanted to get back to being part of strings.” Although she has studied with some impressive names in the contemporary classical world, Dyer’s writing avoids Third Stream clichés, bearing instead the hallmarks of the jazz avant garde, which is heard in numerous tributes on the group’s socially conscious debut. Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage continues in a similar vein, taking conceptual inspiration from political activism, with three pieces written by Dyer each dedicated to a famous civil rights activist.

More than half the album is taken up by the regal modality of the episodic opener “Baraka Suite,” a multi-hued opus honoring the recently departed poet Amiri Baraka. Dyer captures the spirit of its namesake in six interconnected movements that the full band navigates in leisurely fashion, flowing through multiple moods, from sorrow to sanguinity. Wimberly helps establish a groove early on, focusing the strings. There are moments when each player takes the spotlight, but with no solo credits provided, they serve to emphasize the whole rather than individual contributions, yielding an expressive, communal synergy.

Dedicated to the late civil rights and women’s rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, the title track is the shortest and most striking; churning with an urgent sense of agitation, bowed viola and violin soar in angular arabesques over plucked bass. The same pared down trio performs Andrew Lamb’s “Pretty Flowers,” the only non-original of the set, which shimmers with a fleeting beauty. Where the former piece is frantic, this one is graceful, offering a tranquil respite with legato lines, rubato rhythms, and lyrical interplay.

The closer, “Propagating the Same Type of Madness, that uh…” takes its title from a quote by slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, with the entire sextet in full hue and cry. The strings render the piece with a rhapsodic fervor typically heard by horns. As they take turns soloing (occasionally overlapping each other), they transcend conventional notions of “jazz strings,” with spirited dialogues full of dramatic tension, underpinned by Filiano’s elastic bass and Wimberly’s nervy pulsations.

Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage offers an exceptionally unique set of protest-inspired music, encompassing a wide spectrum of emotions and tonalities, establishing Dyer as a rising artist to watch.
–Troy Collins


Nate Wooley Columbia Icefield
Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes
Pyroclastic PR 20

With the self-titled 2019 debut of his quartet, Columbia Icefield, innovative trumpeter and composer Nate Wooley traced the Columbia River from his hometown of Clatskanie, Oregon, to its glacial headwaters, sonically interpreting the breathtaking beauty of the titular icefield. The band’s follow-up, Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes, brings the project full circle – a thematic homecoming that contrasts the vastness of the natural world with the intimacy of one’s roots and the conflicted feelings that can conjure. These same emotions are evoked in the striking photographs by aAron Munson that comprise the album’s artwork – haunting images that suggest similar concepts of abandonment and return.

Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes finds Wooley reuniting with guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and drummer Ryan Sawyer, whose distinctive voices convey Wooley’s expansive vision. The album also includes guest contributions from violist Mat Maneri and electric bassist Trevor Dunn. Columbia Icefield was initially conceived, Wooley says, as a reimagined jazz group, “But after recording the music and playing it live, I realized that it’s closer to folk music.” Embracing that storytelling tradition, Ancient Songs expresses the collective ethos of “burlap heroes.” As Wooley explains, “This album is dedicated to those who recognize living as a heroic act ... [one] who understands and embraces the imperfection of being.”

The album unfolds as an uninterrupted, hour-long experience, divided into three large-scale compositions linked by four short interludes that use field recordings of wind and water to reinforce the music’s programmatic soundscapes. “I Am the Sea That Sings of Dust,” which features Maneri, depicts the struggle between the natural world and human expression. Beginning with gentle, glacially paced thematic developments from Halvorson and Alcorn, rising waves of sound gradually amass into a tempestuous vortex as Sawyer joins in, the music evolving from pastoral to chaotic. After a midway crescendo, Wooley finally enters, providing abstract, ethereal contributions as the mood subsides, until only introspective, folk-inflected musings remain.

“A Catastrophic Legend” was written as an ode to Wooley’s mentor, Ron Miles, with whom he recorded Argonautica (Firehouse 12, 2016). The piece, which includes Dunn’s robust bass playing, was conceived before Miles’ passing and now serves as an elegy. The requiem opens with the group playing an introspective motif augmented by field recordings. This eventually becomes a vehicle for Alcorn’s kaleidoscopic fretwork, before Wooley, Halvorson, and Sawyer join in for a melancholy meditation. Before long, the mood intensifies, culminating in fiery communal interplay and a penultimate passage that pairs Dunn’s riffing with Wooley’s plangent, open horn.

The stirring “Returning To Drown Myself, Finally” is based on a Swedish dalakoral, or religious song, called “Nu är midsommar natt,” a clear reference to the Scandinavian folk traditions found in the Pacific Northwest. This plaintive climax features some of Wooley’s most conventionally beautiful playing, in contrast to often tumultuous accompaniment from the rest of the group, which complements the leader’s conceptual vision of the piece as an impassioned soliloquy.

On Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes, Wooley once again proves himself capable of creating visionary new methods of musical expression, transposing the majestic grandeur of nature and the hushed intimacy of human contact into an evocative, aural narrative.
–Troy Collins


John Yao’s Triceratops
See Tao 004

Trombonist and composer John Yao reconvenes his aptly-named three-horned band Triceratops for a second outing, Off-Kilter, issued on Yao’s own See Tao Recordings. Triceratops premiered with 2019’s How We Do, a dynamic debut rife with complex compositions and invigorating improvisations. For the group’s sophomore album, Yao reaches beyond the limits of his chord-less quintet’s first effort with an audacious program that encourages unbridled exploration.

Off-Kilter reunites Yao with saxophonists Billy Drewes and Jon Irabagon, along with drummer Mark Ferber. Drewes is a veteran whose diaphanous alto and soprano musings blur stylistic boundaries, while Irabagon is a prolific and imposing player with a seemingly unlimited collection of horns (on Off-Kilter he supplements his trusty tenor with the tiny soprillo saxophone). Ferber combines precision with fervor, maintaining a sense of buoyancy in even the most chaotic moments. This time out, however, bassist Peter Brendler is replaced by Robert Sabin, a longtime member of Yao’s big band. Sabin proves to be a perfect fit, maneuvering in tandem alongside the horns through uncharted territory with a harmonically open and rhythmically elastic sensibility.

While How We Do featured some of Yao’s most advanced music, he pushes the boundaries even further on Off-Kilter. His expansive writing strikes a balance between intricate structures and open space for improvising, challenging these skilled musicians while offering them plenty of harmonic freedom and opportunity for interaction.

The album opens with the darting lines and erratic rhythms of the only piece not penned by Yao, Drewes’ capricious “Below the High Rise.” Juxtaposing structural sophistication with jump-cut transitions, it features elaborate ensemble writing, hefty grooves, a frenetic a cappella saxophone duet, and a rugged trombone solo. The tune’s sharp angles yield to open vistas, setting the tone for the album as a whole. The musicians challenge one another throughout – Yao’s blustery contribution is suddenly interrupted by Irabagon’s high-pitched soprillo, forcing the trombonist into spiraling detours.

“Labyrinth” presents something different at every turn, including a fractured, funky intro; a swinging, noir-inflected section; a boisterous, rhythmically complex canon for horns; Irabagon’s torrid tenor testimonial in straight time; and complex metric modulation by Ferber and Sabin that underpins the leader’s angular excursion. “Labyrinth” is followed by the first of two brief interludes that shine a spotlight on Ferber, while serving as key examples of Yao’s compositional approach, by using challenging rhythms and lush backgrounds to draw parallels between this small, chord-less group and his big band.

“Interlude No. 1” leads to a relative moment of respite in “Quietly,” a muscular ballad featuring Drewes’ sinuous alto, while “Crosstalk,” alternating between frolicking swing and swaggering funk, precedes the rubato “Unfiltered,” with its rich, colorful three-horn harmony, whereas the shapeshifting “The Morphing Line” lives up to its name, culminating in a funky call-and-response coda from the horns. Following the concise, quirky “Interlude No. 2,” the proceedings end with Irabagon’s tempestuous tenor helming the feverish title track, which closes the album with episodic fanfare.

Yao’s melodic motifs recall the swinging cadences of classic hard bop, albeit amplified with a bristly, post-bop edge. There’s a harmonic grittiness heard in the unfettered interplay between Drewes and Irabagon once the horns break into separate lines; their impassioned soloing often drifts into freer territory, in contrast with Yao’s more tempered statements. The band members embrace this disparity and when they reach those moments of contrast, they exemplify the album’s title, teetering, but unbowed.
–Troy Collins


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