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Spiritual Dimensions by Wadada Leo Smith

So often, 2 CD sets are rife with 'for rabid fans only' musical filler and so-so material, maybe containing one CD's worth of music that garners a listener's repeated attention. This is most assuredly not the case for Wadada Leo Smith's "Spiritual Dimensions," which proves to be an exception to the rule. Released as single CDs, each of these discs would have easily made it on to my 'Best of The Year' list. Though the point of releasing a 2-CD set featuring Smith's acoustic group on one disc and his electric group on the other may have been to show the breadth of his compositional and improvisational artistry, it's the sheer depth of Smith's composing and playing that carries the day. In fact, there are probably more parallels between the two groups than there are differences. Both groups share the same core rhythm section (drummer Pheeroan AkLaff and bassist John Lindberg), and both groups play some of the same repertoire ('South Central L. A. Kulture' appears on both discs). Operating in a largely improvisational environment, both groups quite successfully rely on well-honed musical instincts and a heightened sense of space and sound density.

For those not familiar with Wadada Leo Smith's music - he possesses one of the most unique instrumental voices in jazz today. Though he's emerged from the avant-jazz scene in and around New Haven, Smith's music has broadened and stretched itself to include all sorts of interesting influences and tangents - from dub reggae, to 20th Century Classical. Like Miles Davis, Smith's vibrato-free, nakedly vocal trumpet sound is instantly recognizable - he's one of those players who can say more with a single stratospheric stab than most can say with dozens of notes. The music on "Spiritual Dimensions" consistently occupies an arresting middle ground between avant-jazz abstraction and the more visceral, tuneful / rhythmic vistas of modern jazz. The combination is as irresistibly appealing as it is artistically fecund.

Pianist Vijay Iyer is continually at the center of the action throughout the first disc. As well he should be - his playing here is nothing short of phenomenal. Orchestral in scope, but consistently lithe and agile in execution, Iyer continually comes up with gripping musical ideas that mesh perfectly with the evolution of Smith's angular compositions. His mercurial genius is on full display on 'Crossing Sirat,' where he engages Lindberg and one of drummers (Moye?) in a furiously rhythmic exchange before giving way to Smith's incisive clarion trumpet. When not in the foreground, he provides dark-hued, harmonically complex accompaniment to Smith's highly emotive improvisational excursions. By contrast, his synthesizer work is spare and atmospheric - barely perceptible at times. The rhythm section is populated by musical giants. Drummer Don Moye is well-known for his work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Pheeroan AkLaff, who has worked extensively with Smith since the mid-1970s, is also known for his work with Cecil Taylor, Oliver Lake, Anthony Davis, and Henry Threadgill to name a few. Though they carefully avoid a full-on percussive onslaught throughout most of the CD, when they do play together they sound like one giant 8-limbed beast - as on the turbulently rhythmic 'Umar at the Dome of the Rock.' John Lindberg, a truly under-sung hero of the string bass, chips in a jaw-dropping, highly percussive solo of his own in the wake of the twin drumming fusillade on the same piece. The electronic edge of this quintet emerges fully on 'South Central L. A. Kulture,' where Iyer's synthesized beeps and boops tiptoe around Smith's plugged-in trumpet before the band introduces an irresistible, yet languid, backbeat. This track is all Wadada - with his sadly soulful trumpet singing out over layers of wah-wah bass, double drums, and Iyer's insistent comping.

The second CD continues much in the same vein as 'South Central L. A. Kulture' from CD 1. In fact, the second CD starts off with the 'Organic ' group's rendition of the same tune. Though Smith's been performing with electric groups for years, this is the first documentation of his 'Organic' orchestra. Sporting 3 (or 4) electric guitarists, electric cello, and two bassists (one electric, one acoustic), and drums, this group practically begs for comparisons to Miles Davis' large groups of the late 60s and early 70s. Part of Wadada's genius is that he's crafted music that is radically different from Miles Davis' pioneering electric work while still utilizing some of its basic elements: the backbeat, layers of contrasting electronically modified sounds, and an attitude towards improvisation that has nothing to do with the traditional role it occupies in straight jazz. The largely moderate-to-slow tempos that dominate this particular recording permit the maximum usage of musical space, freeing up more room for individual expression. Though Wadada is clearly the dominant soloist, cellist Okkyung Lee takes on a role similar to that performed by bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin on 'Bitches Brew' - providing an improvised counterpoint to the lead voice. Though there's plenty of room for soloing, the guitarists provide a continually shifting harmonic and timbral backdrop, while adding to the insistent rhythmic throb of the two bassists and drum kit. Wadada couldn't have picked a more appealing cadre of guitarists. Nels Cline is riding a huge wave of success and notoriety for his work with Wilco and with his own great electric jazz groups as well. By contrast, the excellent Michael Gregory (a.k.a. Michael Gregory Jackson) has kept a relatively low profile since the mid-1980s. No strnager to the worlds of R&B and fusion, Jackson has also collaborated with Smith and AkLaff for several decades. Brandon Ross - best known for his soulful guitar work with Cassandra Wilson and Henry Threadgill - provides interesting and highly electric textures as well as a powerful solo voice. Lamar Smith joins this esteemed trio on three of the CD's four tracks and more than holds his own. Electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson and acoustic bassist John Lindberg (here playing amplified and through electronic effects of his own) take turns holding down the bottom and making excursions into the musical foreground. Sverrisson makes quite an impressive improvisational statement on the irresistibly funky 'Organic.' AkLaff's drumming is funky and rock solid - though he never overplays, he doesn't take a back seat to any of the other players, and his forceful approach to these pieces gives them a consistently tumbling, forward-rolling tension.

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic group holds great promise for a renewed sense of musical vitality and evolutionary activity in a musical sub-genre considered by many to be moribund since the early- to mid-1970s, before it succumbed to the numbing mind balm of what we now know as 'smooth jazz' and 'world groove.' It is my hope that other musicians will find the same sort of mental and emotional nutrition in "Spiritual Dimensions" as I did.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Wadada Leo Smith
  • CD Title: Spiritual Dimensions
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2010
  • Record Label: Cuneiform Records
  • Rating: Five Stars
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