Over five extended compositions, composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith leads a new large ensemble, TUMO, creating a challenging but engaging world of sound that combines composed elements with strong soloists and group improvisation.
Occupy the World by Wadada Leo Smith and TUMO. TUM CD 037-2.
By Michael Ullman
In the notes for his new album, trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith (whose Ten Freedom Summers was a finalist for the 2013 Pultizer Prize in Composition) writes that he experienced a kind of awakening when listening to his first recorded composition, “The Bell,” which was part of the pivotal 1968 LP led by Anthony Braxton entitled 3 Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark DD-415). “The Bell” was the last piece recorded on the session by Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins, Smith, and (on “The Bell”) pianist Muhal Richard Abrams.
The time was ripe for something really new in jazz. John Coltrane had passed away less than a year before. His last performances in Chicago disconcerted as well as energized these younger musicians. Jenkins told me that Coltrane’s long, wailing numbers, which he played along with two drummers and a second saxophonist (Pharoah Sanders), were hard to listen to. Even the performers on stage, as Elvin Jones confessed in an interview, couldn’t hear everything that was going on. Braxton said that it was clear to him that Coltrane had taken intensity as far as it could go. He started listening to Schoenberg (and Dave Brubeck).
Braxton and his Chicago colleagues also started playing a variety of instruments on which they were not virtuosos. On 3 Compositions, Smith plays xylophone, kazoo, bottles, and other unspecified objects. (It’s impossible to be a virtuoso on bottles.) Their performances, some of which I heard at the time, often started with tinklings, rattlings, and squawks and included, especially when Leo Smith was in charge, spacious silences. The intensity of the experience was generated by the interactive nature of the listening process: the relationship between the performers, who didn’t always know what the others might come up with next, and the audience. Coltrane contemplated the overarching architectonics of his performances, while Smith started to think about structuring compositions through the use of what he calls “rhythm-units.”
“I learned how to use and how to think about the rhythm-units,” Smith explained, “while listening to the playbacks of ‘The Bell.’” The nature of those units is obscure, but they are documented in the score: “I had placed the rhythm-units in a dotted box so as to illustrate that they were not to be played like the other music included in the score. . . . In 1968, I conducted the rhythm-units when they were supposed to be played but when the rhythm-units had finished, Muhal Richard Abrams and I continued to play by adding new units to the moment. This is when I realized what the units should sound like and how to use them in music performances.” Rather than roughing up a couple of chords in modal pieces, as many of Coltrane’s admirers were doing at the time, Smith conceived of his spontaneous rhythm-units as discrete sonic chunks—played somewhat freely—that are intended to frame group or solo improvisations.
Smith’s music, even when performed by as massive a group as this mostly Finnish TUMO big band on the album Occupy the World, often creates a sense of expectancy. “The Bell-2” begins with a crash on bass drum and cymbal, followed by a pause. This contrast is repeated several times, eventually interrupted by what seems to be a brash intrusion: two layers of anxiously elaborated electronic sounds, one set submerged in the background and mostly in the bass, the other upfront and squealing.
Over these layers of sound, Smith states his theme on trumpet before stepping aside for electronic sounds (an element of which may be a heavily distorted guitar) to progress and then subside. Then, in what seems to be a new section, serene long tones arrive, once again electronic, over which other instruments enter until there’s a conducted section, much of which is given over to a string quartet. Eventually, the quartet alternates low tremolo sounds with high squeals, until the horns cut the alternation off with a series of staccato chords. Then there’s a guitar solo over varying textures provided by other improvising musicians. Two of the piece’s standouts come a few minutes later: a talking trombone solo and Smith’s own muted solo. The latter takes place in near silence: a flute and a few plucked strings by a harpist and guitarist provide a minimal background for his forceful musings.
It’s a complicated piece that, nonetheless, sustains our interest. So do the others on the excellent Occupy the World, including “Mount Kilimanjaro,” a feature for bassist John Lindberg, “Crossing on a Southern Road,” dedicated to the memory of saxophonist Marion Brown, and the title piece, “Occupy the World for Life, Liberty and Justice.” The latter is Smith’s tribute to the Occupy movement, which is symptomatic of his life long interest in social issues: in 1975, Smith signed his LP Reflectativity for me, urging in his message that I make “the world a place of freedom.” Smith’s music epitomizes this search to escape restriction; it encourages numerous voices to express themselves within a structure or structures that they themselves are invited to will into existence. Yet somehow the result is always paradoxical—the music aways sounds like Wadada Leo Smith.
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.