Recent Listening: W.L. Smith, Tébar, QSF

Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, Spiritual-Dimensions (Cuneiform). The exploratory trumpeter follows up last year’s triumphal Tabligh with a reshuffled quartet and goes himself one better by adding an excursion into electronic territory. The first CD again has Vijay Iyer at the piano and synthesizer and John Lindberg on bass, but in place of drummer ShannonWadada L. Smith Spiritual .jpg Jackson Smith uses two bulwarks of avant garde percussion, Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye. The double drum contingent produces moments of force, as in the opening minutes of “Umar at the Dome of the Rock, parts 1 &2,” but remarkable moderation later in that piece and in “Pacifica.” Smith’s muted long tones in “Pacifica” set a mood exploited by Lindberg and the drummers in a three-way conversation. Smith’s trumpet manipulations in “South Central L.A. Kulture” set a bleak scene that soon becomes populated with aural characters suggested by the title, some vaguely menacing, some amusing in the manner of overzealous hipsters. As in his other quartet ventures, Smith employs his compositional skills in ways that leave the listener unsure what is written, what is suggested and what is pure spontaneous invention. That is as it should be when this kind of music succeeds. I don’t suggest that Smith’s music is easy to listen to. Nor is it intended to be. But for the listener who opens up to it, there are rewards.
CD 2 retains Lindberg and AklLaff and introduces a phalanx of electrified strings commanded by the formidable guitarist Nels Cline. It begins not with an onslaught but in a continuation of the trumpet soliloquy, full of introspection, with which Smith concluded the first “South Central L.A. Kulture” track on CD 1. Two minutes or so into the piece, three amplified guitars, Skuli Sverrisson’s electric bass and Okkyung Lee’s cello make themselves known underneath. (I’d have written this review just to use those musicians’ names.) Now, we’re getting ready for the assault. But, no. Smith continues to build the sound with the slow assurance of a practiced hypnotist, allowing each player enough individual expression to add interest without detracting from the whole. That is more or less how the rest of CD 2 unfolds, with wit, taste and restraint in the use of resources. In his later years, Miles Davis led the way to this kind of music, and he has been allotted plenty of credit and blame for it. In the final balance of Davis’s music, his jazz-rock period was not his most successful, but he lifted a veil to show younger artists a new landscape. Wadada Leo Smith is one who transmogrified that vision into a personal and highly effective way of making music.
Ximo Tébar, Celebrating Erik Satie (Xàbia Jazz). Over the years, several jazz artists have interpreted individual pieces by Satie (1866-1925), the Tebar.jpgFrench visionary who inspired the impressionists and whose music has outlasted the minor ones. In this invigorated collection of Satie compositions, Tébar takes his admiration nine steps further and fills a CD. An accomplished mainstream guitarist, the Spaniard’s free leanings and bag of wa-wa tricks meld entertainingly with Satie’s harmonic surprises and wry turns of melody. Executing precise arrangements, the octet Tébar assembled for the 2008 Xàbia Jazz Festival catches the spirit of Satie’s works in the ensembles and plumbs the music’s undercurrents in their solos. His band of New Yorkers are trumpeter Sean Jones, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonist Stacy Dillard, keyboardists Jim Ridl and Orrin Evans, bassist Boris Koslov and drummer Donald Edwards. The Satie pieces most often trotted out – “Gymnopédie 1” and “Gnossienne 1” – are here, but so are less well-known creations like “Idylle” and “Airs A Faire Fuir,” all performed with a sense of delight and discovery. Easily available in Europe, the CD has yet to pop up on US store shelves or web sites. It is worth seeking out from European sources on line.
Quartet San Francisco, QSF Plays Brubeck (ViolinJazzRecordings). The ability to swing began to steal into the ranks of classical strings players a few years ago. Although they may not discuss it inQSF Brubeck.jpg the polite company of their easily-shocked older colleagues, some of them are also improvising with proficiency and joy. There is convincing evidence of both phenomena in the QSF’s CD of 10 pieces by Dave Brubeck, and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” Violinists Jeremy Cohen and Alisa Rose solo convincingly in Cohen’s evocative arrangement of the Desmond tune. 5/4 time, of course, is no barrier to these conservatory-trained musicians. The violist is Keith Lawrence, the cellist Michelle Djokic, who solos dramatically on Brubeck’s religious theme “Forty Days.” The quartet’s blend, balance and tonal qualities are those of an experienced chamber group that has developed a personality disclosed on two previous CDs. Brubeck’s cellist son Matthew incorporated passages from Ellington tunes into his nimble arrangement of “The Duke.” Bay Area musicians Larry Dunlap and Robert Gilmore, respectively, wrote the arrangements of “Bluette” and “Forty Days.” Cohen arranged the other Brubeck pieces and an extra, “Greensleeves,” under its alternate title “What Child Is This,” just in time for Christmas. One of the highlights of the album is Cohen’s transcription for the strings of Desmond’s “Strange Meadowlark” solo from the original Brubeck quartet recording.

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