Wadada Leo Smith: Old And New 'Dimensions' Smith had three albums out this past fall — two reissues and a new set of live concert recordings by two of his bands.
NPR logo

Wadada Leo Smith: Old And New 'Dimensions'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122214703/122223323" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Wadada Leo Smith: Old And New 'Dimensions'

Review

Music Reviews

Wadada Leo Smith: Old And New 'Dimensions'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122214703/122223323" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The music of trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith ranges from solo recitals to works for chamber orchestra, and for various small improvising units. Smith has three recent albums: two reissues and a new set of live concert recordings by two of his bands.

Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead says Smith's music can be highly abstract, but often carries a whiff of the blues.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith from his reissued 1979 album, "Spirit Catcher." With his wide leaps between long tones and a sometimes generous use of space, Smith nods occasionally to 20th century European concert music. But he's also one of the modern improvisers most grounded in African-American vernaculars. He's the stepson of Mississippi bluesman Alex Wallace, and played for a spell in Little Milton's blues band. Smith's projects are all over the map, but often have this much in common with the blues: the byplay between a strong voice � his horn, in this case - and percussive strings. Elsewhere on "Spirit Catcher," those strings are three concert harps, played by the simpatico Emanuel sisters.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Wadada Leo Smith abstracts from the blues. There are echoes of Japanese kotos and Gambian koras in those harps. But I can't think of any other music that sounds quite like that. Smith makes it all personal. On his other new reissue on the Nessa label, 1985's "Procession of the Great Ancestry," he and vibist Bobby Naughton play in a quartet plus guests. On two numbers, they're joined by Chicago blues guitarist Louis Myers. Smith puts down his trumpet to sing "Who Killed David Walker," in the great tradition of mumbling Mississippi bluesmen.

(Soundbite of song, "Who Killed David Walker")

Mr. WADADA LEO SMITH (Musician): (Singing) I say who, who killed David Walker? I say, who, who killed David Walker? I say there was a sad old day and they walk him out bay. (Unintelligible). Ah ha, hey, hey�

WHITEHEAD: In the 20-some years since then, Wadada Leo Smith has expanded his audience by reviving electric Miles Davis music with guitarist Henry Kaiser. On half of the new Smith double-disc, "Spiritual Dimensions," he's surrounded by strings. His band Organic has two basses, a cello, and a gaggle of electric guitarists, including Wilco's Nels Cline. The band can recreate Miles Davis's '70s funk with eerie fidelity, but they also put their own spin on the idiom.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: That's powerhouse drummer and longtime Smith ally Pheeroan akLaff. Pheeroan is also on the other half of Wadada Leo Smith's "Spiritual Dimensions," in his "Golden Quintet" with Vijay Iyer on piano and John Lindberg on bass. This band can evoke Miles too, but the reggae beat is their own twist.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: In most of these settings, Leo Smith's trumpet is the calm eye of the storm. His sound is raw but lyrical, full of big gestures but intimate somehow. He's not the most technical player, but he's very expressive. In all that, Smith recalls the late Don Cherry. That trumpeter had a very different sound, but was also a musical nomad at home in all sorts of situations. When it comes to making music with the right ideals, Wadada Leo Smith couldn't be in better company.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.