Trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s latest long-form suite, America’s National Parks, unites political engagement with a soul-deep connection to nature. Marshaling his newly expanded Golden Quintet (pianist Anthony Davis, cellist Ashley Walters, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan akLaff), Smith’s 98-minute work, rich with ineffable majesty, fully engages with tensions at the heart of the American experience.
Half of this suite’s six movements are inspired by officially government-endowed parks. “Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America” finds Smith’s stark, ancient phrases giving way to Davis and Lindberg’s undulating rhythm, deftly interlaced with anxious reactions from akLaff. Evoking Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, Smith unleashes full-toned trilling runs over rolling freeform drum figures and rough-edged interpolations from Walters. On “Yosemite,” Davis’ heavy block chords join Smith’s plangent horn to conjure the desolation that confronted settlers pushing their way west.
The other movements are dedicated to natural, civic and human phenomena Smith finds worthy of canonization. “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” captures all facets of this most complex city. Lindberg and akLaff develop a righteously subtle groove while Smith’s muted wails add both a touch of blues and a tinge of mysticism. Smith honors late author and musicologist Eileen Jackson Southern as “A Literary National Park,” Davis and Walters creating fiery fragments of abstraction before joining Smith for a deeply felt finale.
The suite’s longest movement, dedicated to the Mississippi River, is also its most impassioned. In the liner notes, the trumpeter cites the waterway’s buried history as “a dumping place for black bodies by hostile forces,” and the music resurrects the forgotten dead with ear-sawing Walters runs and akLaff dropping bombs beneath furious, hard-blowing flurries from Smith. Like the entire suite, it honors its inspirations while confronting the compromises and pain that made them possible.