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December 2002

Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet
The Year of the Elephant
Pi Recordings

It is rare for an all-star lineup to live up to its attendant hype, but the musicians in Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet are real stars, and their collaborative efforts on The Year of the Elephant are always sensitive and responsive and often surprising and challenging. An implicit aim here is to find balance among the four musical elements, and even though this is only the second recording by the Golden Quartet, the band is already breaking new ground. Smith frequently dips into the late Miles Davis bag he showcased on the very engaging Yo Miles a couple of years back. On the opening "Al-Madinah" he demonstrates how a great artist can pay homage to an earlier master without losing his identity, while Anthony Davis abstracts the standard approach to electric piano and Jack DeJohnette takes things a step or two further than he has in the jazz-rock context. Malachi Favors usually plays the repetitive lines we hear from electric bassists when the music goes in this direction but he still sounds like himself.

Even though '70s Miles is a frequent departure point for The Year of the Elephant, jazz-rock fans may not feel comfortable with the music while listeners who usually have trouble with rock-type rhythms may be amazed to hear them used in such a creative context. Similarly, those who have found Anthony Davis' work somewhat too impressionistic for their taste may find his approach perfectly suited to this context, much as fans of the Coltrane quartet didn't always buy McCoy Tyner's records. And Smith is so impressive; passionate one minute, obscure the next; here harsh, here gentle, and on occasion so slyly humorous that you'll laugh out loud.

DeJohnette is right at the top of his game while Favors adds his patented dark magic to the mix. But for all the outstanding individual contributions, the strongest impression is made by passages of collective interaction that are as varied, unpredictable and satisfying as classic New Orleans jazz or Chicago blues.

Originally published in December 2002
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