2009 was a busy year for trumpeter, composer and CalArts faculty Wadada Leo Smith. In October, he released Spiritual Dimensions, a new two-disc set of live concert recordings, and there were also two reissues of earlier works Spirit Catcher (1979) and Procession of the Great Ancestry (1985).
Known for his improvisation and a sound that blends avant-garde jazz, Delta blues and world music, Smith’s recent work was featured on NPR earlier this week, and garnered a great review by “Fresh Air’s” Kevin Whitehead:
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 vibraphonist Bobby Naughton play in a quartet plus guests. In 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.
In most of these settings, Smith's trumpet functions as 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.
But music is always better heard that described. Here's a sample of "South Central L.A. Kulture" from Smith's Spiritual Dimensions (disc two).