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Wadada Leo Smith: Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet

So-called supergroups that form for one-off albums are rarely super and seldom equal the sum of their parts. For trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s two latest albums, he was able to assemble a dream group without suffering from ego clash.

Never have the under-appreciated trumpeter’s ideas been so wonderfully executed than on these two quite different discs, featuring primarily the same musicians. The talents of pianist Anthony Davis, Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors Magoustous and drummer Jack DeJohnette masterfully augment Smith’s poignant playing; they give Smith’s music the skilled and able embellishment lacking in his solo and past group work.

Smith’s 1990s records for ECM, Tzadik and others have shown off his many talents-leader, writer, improviser, multi-instrumentalist-but no recent recording has shown off his playing to best advantage. On the Golden Quartet CD, Smith puts aside his usual melange of world music and jazz for a more jazz-entrenched feel, and restrains the urge to perform on multiple instruments, focusing on trumpet and flugelhorn, while Reflectativity exposes his methods of interpolated composition.

The Golden Quartet feels more like a collective enterprise (Smith’s credit as leader and composer notwithstanding)-as each musician is given freedom to improvise, with no one member dominating the group. The compositions steer the players instead of limiting them. On the incendiary opening track, “DeJohnette,” each member gets an opportunity to state the recurring theme of the piece, giving the music structure and spontaneity at the same time. The majority of the record is more reserved. “Celestial Sky and All the Magic: A Memorial for Lester Bowie” and “The Healer’s Voyage on the Sacred River” prove that there is plenty of room for placid beauty.

If anyone doubts the neglect of Smith, Reflectativity is a prime example of what people have missed. Reflectativity is ostensibly a remake of the long out-of-print 1974 album released on Smith’s own Kabell label, with the original session’s bassist Wes Brown replaced by Favors. The title track, however, is the only piece remade; it’s joined by three new pieces. Recorded at the same time as the Golden Quartet album the lineup is the same, sans DeJohnette. The drummerless trio’s playing is much starker and sparer on Reflectativity, offering open compositions that are blueprints for improvisation. Smith’s excellent use of space is much more evident as silence is often more audible than rhythm. The title track is a prime example of Smith’s open-ended composition method that has very little obvious structure and allows for radical sudden shifts within the pieces. The album is more often a series of solos or call and response among Smith, Davis and Favors than actual trio playing. “Hanabishi” is the album’s best track because it is the most cohesive. Even though it features more group interplay than the rest of the tracks, the 12-minute selection is still much less fluid than the Golden Quartet.

Originally Published