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Wadada Leo Smith: Kabell Years: 1971-1979

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Affixing the AACM label to any musician is a somewhat dicey proposition, but particularly in the case of Wadada Leo Smith. Like Lester Bowie, the trumpeter had paid considerable dues in the territories before propitiously arriving in Chicago as the venerable collective was coalescing. Despite the trumpeter’s contributions to the Association’s seminal recordings of the late 1960s, he was based in Chicago for only a few years. He was in Paris for the history-making recording binge for BYG/Actuel beginning in ’69. Like Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins, Smith migrated eastward in the ’70s, but settling in the New Haven area, not New York City. Though his unique voice as an improviser and considerable promise as a composer were established on Anthony Braxton’s Delmark and BYG discs, it was in Connecticut that Smith created his first and probably most enduring body of recorded works. Unlike other internationally toasted members of the AACM, Smith released his music on his own Kabell label. His output was nothing less than astounding, as most if not all of the four Kabell LPs he issued during the 1970s would merit at least minor classic status in any responsible survey of the decade, especially now that they have been collected with an additional 90 minutes of previously unissued studio and concert performances on the four-CD Kabell Years: 1971-1979.

Smith documented his solo music with his first Kabell LP, Creative Music-1, bringing two together two strains explored by a number of AACM artists; a keen formalism, expressed through Smith’s instrumentalist bearing and his compositional rigor, and the signifying of ritual through sound collages of percussion and “little instruments.” Recorded in 1971, this recording falls between Braxton’s For Alto and The Roscoe Mitchell Solo Saxophone Concerts (the one great Sackville LP that has so far eluded reissue), but instead of the frontal assaults that were part and parcel of the saxophonists’ music, Smith favored a subtlety that frequently approaches stealth to place not only the trumpet but sound itself into a new context. Like Bowie and Bill Dixon before him, Smith explored a vast array of timbres, but with surer intonation than Bowie (conversely, Smith does not make masterly mistakes) and a stronger sound than Dixon. His use of percussion tended to be sparse rather than rudimentary. The resulting ambiance is as elemental as it is abstract, which is often attributed to Smith’s Mississippi Delta roots.

It is a mix of temperament and methodology that accounts for the differences between Smith’s solo music and that of the saxophonists. Whereas Braxton and Mitchell’s solo performances delineated and reinforced obvious structural parameters, Smith’s every note and silence presented a whole new range of options for where the music might go. Subsequently, there is a more palpable sense of the emerging moment in Smith’s solo music. That Smith was able to transpose this approach to an ensemble setting is nothing short of stunning, particularly when considering that the trio and quintet performing as New Dalta Ahkri on, respectively, Reflectativity (1974) and Song of Humanity (’76), were, with the exception of saxophonist Oliver Lake, obscure newcomers and recent students. True, the signatures of pianist Anthony Davis (who debuted with bass player Wes Brown on Reflectativity), Lake and drummer Pheeroan akLaff (the latter two rounding out the Song of Humanity quintet) are all over these early recordings but what is impressive is how fresh they sound and how well they serve Smith’s intentions.

Still, the difference in mood between the two New Dalta Ahkri albums is striking. Reflectativity has many calm, even serene moments, but there is constantly an undertow pulling the listener into the built-in indeterminacy of Smith’s compositions. Though Brown’s space-soaking sound is not well served by the recording, Davis’ gracefulness comes through despite the further handicap of a marginal piano. If anything, this accentuates the penetrating attack and luminous tone Smith musters. He is definitely the leader of the date, but Davis and Brown’s adherence to Smith’s approach yields a fundamentally collective music. Song of Humanity is more heated and muscular, and not solely because of the presence of akLaff, who was already capable of detonating explosive music, particularly with Lake, who was then bursting upon the international scene. This is arguably the most daring of Davis’ ’70s recordings, especially in his use of electric piano, which foreshadows his work in Smith’s Golden Quartet. At the same time, the music has the compositional grounding to prevent it from dissipating into mere intensity.

Smith’s last Kabell was a second solo album, Ahkreanvention, about which he is now apparently ambivalent, as he chose to excise two pieces for Ghanaian flute. As engaging as they are, the surviving tracks ultimately have as much of a supplemental feel as the extra material from the New Dalta Ahkri dates and a riveting ’76 Oakland solo concert (which is, unfortunately, scattered over two discs). Even so, they add weight to issues with which commentators and historians must contend: Are Smith’s Kabells an important early milestone in the AACM’s diaspora, reflecting the widening influence of its pedagogy of musician-generated creativity? Or are they Smith’s first post-AACM recordings?