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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.

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