Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet

In the third of a five-concert “Ancient to the Future” series devoted to the work of the AACM, Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet took the stage of Philadelphia’s International House—an intimate, dimly lit yet fairly large space booked by the Ars Nova Workshop. Smith, in the wake of Malachi Favors’ demise, has enlisted bassist John Lindberg along with two formidable up-and-comers, pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Nasheet Waits. (Ronald Shannon Jackson could not perform, though his name appeared on the program.) Two days earlier, the group played New York’s Merkin Hall in an expanded lineup featuring Rumi’s Disciple, a progressive world music ensemble led by santur player Alan Kushan. As strong as that performance was, it left one yearning to hear the Golden Quartet alone and unfiltered. In that regard, the Philly concert did not disappoint.

Iyer began the evening with amorphous, busily percolating improvisation on Fender Rhodes--an instrument he didn’t use in New York. Waits soon joined him with a blizzard of fast cross-rhythms, obliquely suggesting a tempo. This duologue continued until Iyer switched to piano, articulating a series of unison hits with the bass, against a theme of short ascending stutters from Smith’s trumpet. From there the piece underwent further transitions: dark rubato interplay preceded a piano/trumpet duo and, after a cued stop, an unaccompanied trumpet solo. Smith signaled Iyer back in, and soon the pianist returned to a duo formation with Waits. Following a repeat of the piano/bass unison figure, Waits suggested another tempo, slower than the initial one. Smith gave long, legato cries, finally arriving at a single sustained yet fractured note.

The second selection began with colorist cymbal splashes. Waits gradually expanded to the entire drum kit while Smith led Iyer and Lindberg through a series of cued figures. This shorter piece found Smith making use of two different mutes and featured Lindberg on a strong pizzicato solo. After a frenetic trio interlude in an implied swing feel, Smith cued a strong and abrupt ending. Then Iyer introduced what could be called the ballad of the set, coaxing ambient tones and abstract whirrs from the Rhodes and an additional mini-keyboard. Waits used mallets to color what became a sparse and pastoral soundscape, suffused by Smith’s most lyrical playing of the night. In a captivating passage for piano, bass and drums, the group elaborated on an internal trio dynamic only touched upon at the New York concert.

Iyer reached deeper into his ambient bag to create the sonic washes of the fourth piece, “The Passion of Rosie Parks.” Smith, again with mute, floated above the modified Rhodes sounds, which were at once edgy and soothing. But no sooner did the piece erupt into a free-funk feel almost worthy of Smith’s Yo Miles! sessions, with Lindberg clicking on a wah pedal to create a thick, quasi-psychedelic soup. Just before the end--a reprise and fadeout of the ambient intro--Iyer ventured an agitated Rhodes solo over Waits’s fierce groove.

On the concluding piece, Lindberg played arco as Iyer plucked the piano strings and Waits ratcheted up the intensity. Smith mused over sparse, open-ended harmonies and an increasingly steady drum pattern, a kind of tribal tom-tom dance. Smith wound down the piece with his most active and aggressive conducting of the night, waving the band through a series of stop-start, staccato punctuations. After some initial hesitancy, the players caught on and gave it the intended gusto.

Smith’s performance (apparently his first in Philadelphia) followed concerts earlier in the season by Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet and Anthony Braxton’s sextet. On February 3, 2006 Ars Nova will present a double bill: the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and a Leroy Jenkins/Myra Melford duo. Henry Threadgill’s Zooid will perform on March 17.

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