Album Review: Wadada Leo Smith’s “The Great Lakes Suites” — A Miraculous Freedom

Wadada Leo Smith’s latest album features a series of miraculous performances that give a new meaning to freedom: the sometimes lengthy and airily open improvisations take us on journeys but never seem to wander.

The Great Lakes Suites (TUM Records 041-2). Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet, with Henry Threadgill on reeds, John Lindberg on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums.


By Michael Ullman

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, whose last recording was the universally praised Ten Freedom Summers, has returned with a double disc featuring three of the most distinguished improvising musicians alive. It could hardly fail to fascinate. The album is less grand than Ten Freedom Summers, but the effort is ambitious, rambunctious at times, and also surprisingly dignified. The six pieces here are program music – each piece is dedicated to one of the Great Lakes – though no one, I surmise, will be able to figure out the exact details of the program. I have lived on the shores of Lake Michigan, and listened in winter to the grinding of its ice flows, and in summer watched children run in and out of its waters, but I couldn’t hear anything in Smith’s piece “Lake Michigan” that was particularly evocative of its waters as distinguished from the other lakes celebrated on the discs. (Whimsically, Smith adds in Lake St. Clair to make a half dozen pieces.).

No matter. For Smith, American music, particularly improvised music, inevitably means generating wide-ranging possibilities, contradictions, and implications. In Outside Music, Inside Voices, Garrison Fewell’s book of dialogues with Smith, the trumpeter/composer explains his approach:

There’s no model in society of what a true democracy is other than a musical ensemble. Let me give you an example: A musical ensemble has all these components, and it has something that everybody is focused on, this document which gets everybody’s attention and requires them to use their responsibility to make this document come alive. And then there’s the leader of that ensemble. By leader, I mean the one who selected those individuals to come together as a unit, because no group ever comes together without someone selecting them. So here’s this woman or man who has a worldview and has selected this document which is laid out in precise detail, and you can hear that element in the piece, but in the context of performers there is so much added to that dimension that it becomes a communal activity. It becomes a democratic practice when the ensemble allows each individual to share in the construction of what that document means. If they share it equally, they bear the same weight as the leader, even though that document is that leader’s worldview.

All of Smith’s music simultaneously stresses form, which he calls “the backbone on which you make your presentation,” and freedom. Perhaps a lavish mobility would be a better description. Even more than on Ten Freedom Summers, the six pieces that make up The Great Lakes Suites invite generous contributions from his musicians, in this case an all-star quartet. The result is a series of miraculous performances that give a new meaning to freedom: the sometimes lengthy, airily open, improvisations take us on wayward journeys but never seem to wander. Because the composed sections exert a strong adhesive power over improvisers and listeners alike, the pieces are imaginatively free but never capricious. Each “Lake” starts with a theme, in the case of “Lake Michigan,” a sober, though spiky, series of angular statements, each one ending on a held note. These themes are played by the two horns while bassist Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette comment freely. The ensuing improvisations include a delightful, nearly silent section in which DeJohnette plays on the rims of his snares. (There’s an occasional cymbal crash.) The drummer is so melodic that the solo still reflects Smith’s intentions, as do Lindberg’s ensuing phrases, played in duet with the drummer. Smith’s musicians have enormous leeway, but somehow the composer has arranged for structured things to happen.

Despite the bright boldness of Smith’s trumpet, with his forthright open horn sound, much of the music is refreshingly intimate. (I am a fan of Smith’s solo disc on ECM, Kulture Jazz.) Smith states the legato theme of “Lake Huron,” which for some reason turns out to be the most serious of the Great Lakes. He plays over the loose rattling of DeJohnette’s drums and the bowed bass of Lindberg. The former’s contributions to the album are especially crucial: besides being an expressive soloist, DeJohnette provides welcome continuity to the album’s performances. He provides the gently rocking, marvelously swinging beat on “St Clair.” A master bandleader/composer as well as an intriguing soloist since the ’70s (when he co-led the group Air), Henry Threadgill is also essential. (Seven of Threadgill’s sets can be found on Henry Threadgill, Black Saint/Soul Note) Threadgill takes an amusingly stuttering saxophone solo on “Lake Huron,” whose fragments fit together like a well-designed puzzle. His bass flute memorably introduces the mysterious “Lake Erie.”

Smith recalls that, when he finished his piece “Emmett Till” for Ten Freedom Summers, he had no idea what it would sound like. When he rehearsed it, the music seemed to him to have been produced by some better part of himself. It’s obviously a very disciplined self. Smith’s compositions resonate with the approach of Steve Lacy, who said he studied music all his life in order to avoid sounding arbitrary – to play freely requires all the knowledge one can muster. Breaking boundaries suggests that the boundaries are still there, somewhere. Smith’s mastery (consciously or unconsciously) of that paradox explains his music’s combination of wisdom and restraint, expansiveness and virtuosity.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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