Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s devotion to the avant-garde has remained steadfast over the decades, but his new effort, Red Hill, is even freer than much of what has preceded it. There are no rhythms, meters, melodies, chord progressions, basslines or structures of any other kind throughout these six long tracks. While such adherence to complete freedom has produced some spectacular results by many artists over the years, Red Hill is difficult to warm up to.
A long, anguished trumpet burst introduces “Gneiss,” and per usual Smith employs generous use of space, as do his teammates Jamie Saft (piano), Joe Morris (bass) and Balazs Pandi (drums). The proclamation heralds several minutes of wandering and meandering that build a head of steam but never coalesce around an idea. Though other pieces seem not to know where to go either, there are moments of brilliance. Twelve minutes into “Janus Face,” the quartet churns up enough energy to power a small city despite the aimlessness. Passages elsewhere seem dry or derivative. Saft’s skittering, spiky runs suggest a deliberate Cecil Taylor imitation, and Smith often comes off like he doesn’t know what he should do, such as when he blows hesitantly over the rhythm section’s monotonous rumbling on “Tragic Wisdom.” One is left wanting for more pieces like the spacey “Agpaitic,” distinguished by Saft’s computer-noise attack on Fender Rhodes.
Smith, who has been at the free-jazz game since the 1960s, has seen his stock rise dramatically in recent years on the strength of some remarkably creative albums and projects. But he has done better than Red Hill before, and certainly he will do better again.