The music of trumpeter, composer and resolute individualist Wadada Leo Smith is absorbing. It often has a demanding density even when he is the only player—as he is in one of these albums. It can bring rewards to the listener who accepts Smith’s free jazz heritage and listens to him with open ears and open mind. As in his recent tribute to America’s national parks, his paean to Miles Davis, duets with pianist Vijay Iyer and a succession of other albums over the years, Smith has a vision that embraces Lennie Tristano, Ornette Coleman, Chicago’s AACM movement and John Coltrane, among other artists who as early as the late 1950s began liberating their work from standard jazz approaches.
In Smith’s album of music by and about Thelonious Monk he is alone with his trumpet. That creates a conceptual challenge for the player of an instrument incapable of harmonic accompaniment. He compensates by employing passing tones to fill in or imply harmonies. The canny Smith’s familiarity with chord substitutions and his formidable trumpet technique make for thrills and occasional amusement, as when he leaps high above the staff to nail precisely the only note that would work at a certain point in his variations on “Ruby, My Dear.” As in most of his albums, Smith’s nicely crafted liner essay answers questions about his titles. He explains that “Monk And His Five Point Ring At The Five Spot Café,” for instance, was inspired by a clip from a documentary about Monk. The occasion that titled “Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium” may never have happened in real life, but in a dream that Smith remembers. Nothing in his playing directly evokes either pianist. Some titles need no explanation; it tends to be general knowledge among Monk followers that “Crepuscle With Nellie” was for his wife. Smith gives the melody a loving late-evening interpretation ending on a lingering high B-flat. When Smith uses his Harmon mute, as he does on “Adagio: Monk, the Composer in Sepia,” his inner Miles Davis emerges. The influence is pronounced. Earlier in the album, essentially the same piece with an altered title is without the mute. Smith also caresses “’Round Midnight” on open horn, playing it slowly. The mood is not unlike those that Davis often created on ballads. When Smith plays the occasional note with cracked edges, it’s natural to wonder who he was thinking of.
There is little question about that in Smith’s Najwa. The album features the electric bass and production skills of Bill Laswell, a veteran of the Downtown movement in New York City in the 1970s. Like Smith, Laswell is partial to the electronic Miles Davis. Their fondness for that idiom helps determine Najwa’s atmosphere. Smith has a long history with three of the guitarists here, Michael Gregory Jackson, Brandon Ross and Henry Kaiser. He has a newer, family, relationship with the fourth guitarist, Lamar Smith, his grandson, who has performed with him since 2009, been a member of Wadada Leo’s Organic Ensemble and Silver Orchestra and was on the Yo Miles! album. From the first track, evocative of Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, much of the album’s power rides on Laswell’s bass lines, often in harness with the drumming of Pheeroan akLaff, a Detroit native with a forty-year history in the free jazz sphere. In its titles as well as its music, Najwa constitutes tributes to Coleman, John Coltrane, the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and Billie Holiday. The ten-minute Holiday track is entitled, “The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers.” The other titles, in Smith’s poetic way with words, are nearly as long. Throughout, Smith’s playing is infectious even in his muted work in the slow title tune. By far the shortest piece in the album, its mystery and languor and the melancholy of Smith’s muted solo keep me going back to it.