Wadada Leo Smith & TUMO: Occupy The World
TUM Records

In many ways Occupy The World is a logical extension of Wadada Leo Smith's 2012 release, the critically acclaimed Ten Freedom Summers (recently a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, as well as textura's top album pick of 2012), if not quite as ambitious. Such a determination must be understood relatively, however, as the new release is grandly ambitious—just not as ambitious as the four-CD set that preceded it and is so encompassing it seemed to represent nothing less than the apex of Smith's career.

Similarities between the projects are easy to identify: whereas Ten Freedom Summers found its thematic inspiration in Civil Rights issues and US history, Occupy The World draws inspiration from the modern-day Occupy movement. As Franz Matzner notes in the package's in-depth liner notes, “To Smith, the Occupy movement possesses the potential to be the next evolutionary step in that same struggle for universal human rights” (Matzner also draws a connecting line between Rosa Parks's refusal to surrender her bus seat to the Occupy movement's physical occupation of space). And the instrumental forces Smith deploys on both recordings are enormous, with the earlier release fluctuating between small and large ensemble formats and the new one featuring Smith playing with and conducting the twenty-one-member improvising orchestra TUMO (Todella Uuden Musiikin Orkesteri—in English, the Really New Music Orchestra), which performed for the first time at TUMfest12 in Helsinki, Finland in February 2012 under Smith's leadership. In terms of instrumentation, TUMO isn't a standard symphony orchestra. Yes, strings, percussion, harp, and woodwinds are present, but so too are a quarter-tone accordion, electronics, and electric guitars.

Smith's penchant for long-form composition is once again evident on the new release, with the shortest of its five pieces (all appearing for the first time in recorded form) sixteen minutes and the longest thirty-three, and the material also again manages to straddle the high-wire combination of formal compositional structure and improvisation in captivating manner. One is repeatedly struck by the music's fluidity and by the way the musicians navigate the challenges inherent in large-scale improvisation. But while there are similarities, there are differences, too: setting his horn temporarily aside, Smith assumes the conducting role only on “Mount Kilimanjaro (Love and Compassion for John Lindberg),” a concerto for double bass and large ensemble.

“Queen Hatshepsut,” dedicated to the first female leader of a major civilization in history (specifically the fifth pharaoh during the eighteenth dynasty in ancient Egypt), begins the recording ear-catchingly with rainshowers of cymbals by the percussionists before the surreptitious entrance of stately themes voiced by woodwinds and horns. Smith follows that ceremonial intro with composed sections designed for collective improvisation—a prototypical example of Smith's composition-improv ethos. Solo voices—tenor and alto saxophones, flute—briefly extricate themselves from the collective before merging back into the droning mass, Smith himself appearing halfway through with a stirring muted trumpet solo. “The Bell - 2,” which takes as its starting point Smith's first recorded composition “The Bell” (included on Anthony Braxton's first recording as a leader in 1968), is as arresting as “Queen Hatshepsut” if for different reasons, foremost among them an arrangement that backs Smith's aggressive trumpet soloing with electronics and electric guitars.

As mentioned, Smith cedes the spotlight to long-time colleague Lindberg on “Mount Kilimanjaro (Love and Compassion for John Lindberg),” and provides the double bassist with a magnificent forum to demonstrate the full range of his abilities. Acting as a support for the continuously soloing Lindberg, TUMO, spurred on by the fiery interplay of its three drummers, plays with no small amount of tumult during the piece, a move that leads the double bassist to play with an equal degree of fury. “Crossing On a Southern Road” also pays tribute, this time to the late saxophonist Marion Brown with whom Smith founded the Creative Improvisation Ensemble and recorded a duo album in 1970. The aforementioned fluidity of the ensemble playing is never more apparent than on this piece, whose oft-glacial tempo allows the music to assume a dreamlike character. As in “Queen Hatshepsut,” individual instruments, violin, guitar, and trumpet among them, separate themselves out of the whole before eventually being drawn back into it.

Obviously the album's keynote piece, “Occupy the World For Life, Liberty and Justice” is also its longest at thirty-three minutes. It's also the riskiest, one might say, of the five, given its structure: while it includes traditionally notated sections, it's also shaped in-the-moment during performance and incorporates (twice) the so-called “Black Hole,” which requires the musicians to collectively enter uncharted territory and “find their way forward around the rim of the black hole.” After a serene strings-based intro, the music works through multiple episodes, sometimes revisiting the intro before pushing on into sequences alternately suffused with despair and hope. On a final note, it's interesting that Smith chose to follow the grandiose Ten Freedom Summers with a release of similarly epic scope, rather than issue something on the order of a small group set of covers and originals as one way of preempting the comparisons that might arise between two large-scale recordings, especially when released in close proximity to one another. If the new release doesn't have quite the gravitas of its predecessor, it's a thoroughly satisfying work in its own right, one that resoundingly testifies to the creative strengths and integrity of its creator.

August-September 2013