Wadada Leo Smith:
Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM)
Wadada Leo Smith’s solo trumpet tribute to Thelonious Monk evokes two points of reference. First is Monk’s 1957 solo-piano masterpiece, Thelonious Himself, the album that did more to demonstrate the elasticity of time than Einstein and Hawking combined. Like the pianist did on that album, Smith, on Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, juxtaposes his own originals with standards (in his case Monk staples), without timekeeping. But Smith doesn’t have harmony to structure his work, either; it’s all melody and whim.
The other is Smith’s existing body of solo-trumpet albums, including his 1972 debut, Creative Music – 1, among the most difficult recordings in jazz. Compared to some of those LPs, Solo is cake. But a confection it is not.
A few Wadada licks are thrown in, but for the most part his solos on the Monk pieces honor what their composer would have done: quoted, developed and abstracted the themes he wrote. (On “Reflections,” Smith even abstracts a theme from “Ruby, My Dear.”) The trumpeter who’s so influenced by Miles Davis doesn’t even go for Miles’ epoch-defining take of “’Round Midnight.” Instead it’s Monk’s arrangement, with Monk’s melodic flourishes, and Smith lets us know it. There’s something of an academic whiff to these choices, unexpected even from this seasoned academician.
On the other hand, Smith’s compositions are as inescapably Smith-ian as Monk’s are Monk-ian. “Monk and His Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café”—who else would craft that title?—is structured and motivic but also loose, rambling and free-associative. “Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium—A Mystery” only functions at all if one disregards the title entirely. There’s no direct, stylistic evocation of either pianist, so don’t look for it. The trumpeter is describing the image they hold in his subconscious. The dialogue is fascinating but hard to connect with.
Solo, then, is intellectually pleasing but viscerally distant. Concurrent with it, however, is another album of jazz-hero celebration, and Najwa has much more bite. It features an electric ensemble: electric bassist Bill Laswell and four electric guitarists (Henry Kaiser, Michael Gregory Jackson, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith), along with Smith on trumpet, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and percussionist Adam Rudolph. It also very much channels, in Smith’s original compositions, the artists to whom it pays tribute. “Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Heirographic Forms: A Resonance Change in the Millennium” and “Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms” may not bring the full-on sonic blitzkrieg of Prime Time, but they share its crossbreeding of funk and freeform rhythm. They also have its simmering brew of dissonance and serration, making the guitarists hard to distinguish.
“Ornette” has a slow section for Smith to improvise, which aligns with the delicate ether of the undedicated “Najwa” and the closing “The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers.” These are tunes that are long on Smith’s phrasing at its most plaintively poignant and, yes, Miles-esque—think “He Loved Him Madly.” They’re also long on atmosphere, though that’s a pervading concern for the album. Every sound, save the drums, is bathed in a concoction of reverb and echo (especially Laswell’s bass, which seems nearly transparent with reverb).
Najwa is by far the more abstract of the two Smith records, but also the one with the most footholds, the most excitement. Put another way, Solo is a record to be admired; Najwa is a record to be loved.