Wadada Leo Smith: The Great Lakes Suites
Wadada Leo Smith's previous two recordings, 2012's remarkable four-CD set Ten Freedom Summers and 2013's double-disc Occupy The World (credited to Smith and TUMO—Todella Uuden Musiikin Orkesteri), are notable for, among other things, being epic in scale and conceptual scope. For his latest ambitious work, the jazz trumpeter has chosen something equally monumental as subject matter: The Great Lakes, which began to form around 10,000 years ago at the end of the last glacial period and which form an aquatic bridge connecting Canada and the USA. But in contrast to those earlier releases, The Great Lakes Suites, which spreads six pieces across two CDs, features four musicians only: Smith, acoustic bassist John Lindberg, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and saxophonist/flutist Henry Threadgill. There's a historical dimension to the recording in another sense, too: Smith's association with Threadgill extends back decades, and they not only share a connection to the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) but the saxophonist played in Smith's Chicago quartet Integral before the trumpeter moved to New Haven, Connecticut in the summer of 1970 for a ten-year stay.
Unlike Debussy's La Mer, Smith doesn't approach his subject matter impressionistically, and there is no attempt to literally evoke physical details associated with the lakes. Instead, in featuring six long-form pieces—the longest twenty-two minutes and the shortest nine—the work alludes to the magnitude of the lakes, which comprise twenty-one percent of the world's fresh water (incidentally, while they're generally thought of as being five in number, Smith's conception makes room for the comparatively small Lake St. Clair, located in the passage between Lake Erie and Lake Huron). That being said, the music, like the lakes, does often alternate between episodes of calm and turbulence.
Listeners familiar with Smith's past releases already know that his music doesn't swing in the traditional jazz sense; instead the material unfolds in blocks of sound. Neither does his music orient itself around melody in the conventional sense; instead themes interject themselves as a way of holding a piece together and lending it structure (see, for example, the declamatory statements that introduce “Lake Michigan”). While Smith has given each setting a compositional shape, the playing is marked by looseness and constant invention, with DeJohnette in particular intuitively responding at every moment to the other players. Lindberg's no slouch in that department either, and the recording grants several solo opportunities to all four musicians.
In those moments when Smith drops out leaving Threadgill to play alongside Lindberg and DeJohnette, the music can't help but begin to conjure memories of Air, Threadgill's trio with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall (later Pheeroan akLaff), especially when the darting attack of Threadgill's biting alto is so distinctive. The solo bass flute playing on “Lake Erie,” the recording so pristine that every intake of breath is audible between the vibrato-laden phrases, calls to mind an Air piece such as “Tragedy On a Thursday Afternoon” (from 1983's Live at Montreal International Jazz Festival). There also are passages that strongly evoke the playing style and spirit of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, none more so than during the fiery section midway through “Lake Superior” when DeJohnette seems to be channeling, intentionally or not, Famoudou Don Moye.
On this ninety-one-minute recording, the musicians follow Smith's lead, shadowing his blustery expressions with sympathetic support, Lindberg and DeJohnette both responding to his lines as if engaging in conversation and adjusting their commentary to his. The trumpeter's in fine form throughout, as exemplified by his “Lake Ontario” solo, which, inaugurated by a split note, thereafter fluctuates between short phrases and long tones. Those moments when Smith and Threadgill pair up to state a theme incite the bassist, his contributions often bowed, and drummer to play with even greater abandon. Many memorable moments arise, among them the unison flute-and-muted trumpet statements within “Lake Erie,” the funk groove DeJohnette unexpectedly drops into the end of “Lake St. Clair,” and so on. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Great Lakes Suites is that it marks another significant accomplishment in Smith's creative output. It's incredible to see the seventy-plus trumpeter reaching such artistic heights at this late stage in his career, and how wonderful it is to see TUM Records honouring Smith by presenting Occupy The World and The Great Lakes Suites in such flattering manner.