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Wadada Leo Smith: The Great Lakes Suite

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Composer-trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has set an impossibly high bar for himself recently with a pair of politically trenchant, inventively knotty large ensemble projects, his magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers (2012) and Occupy the World (2013). The Great Lakes Suites suffers only by contrast. Spread over 90 minutes, the six suites (Smith has added Lake St. Clair, astride Detroit, to the traditional quintet of Great Lakes) share an implacable temperament to the point where they could be interchangeably named and sorted. And in lieu of symphonic ensembles and arrangements, Smith hews to a basic quartet.

But what a quartet! In the liner notes, Smith calls out the “flat surfaces” and underlying “volatility” as the “fundamental characteristics” of the Great Lakes. To achieve this “[r]estrained, yet explosive” dynamic, he installed Jack DeJohnette in the drummer’s chair aside his longtime bass cohort John Lindberg and enlisted Henry Threadgill on saxophones and flutes to complete the ensemble.

Turning DeJohnette loose in this expansive context is alone worth the price of admission. He roams over his entire kit to catalyze the opening of “Lake Michigan,” then engages Lindberg in an intimate, coiled, back-and-forth duet over a seven-minute stretch in the middle that is a riveting endorsement for rhythm section leads. All four prove their mettle in various configurations-the shifts from Threadgill (on flute) to the pairings of Smith and Lindberg, Smith and Threadgill and finally DeJohnette and Threadgill provide a delightfully probing variety of dominant forces on “Lake Erie.”

Ultimately the greatest lake here is derived from the pool of talent and wellspring of innovations created by Chicago’s AACM alumni and their kindred spirits. These are musicians who understand that spatially oriented jazz requires depth as much as breadth. They have acquired the muscular ears and refined wisdom of knowing the similarities between pausing and digging, and the synergy that ensues when both are diligently deployed.

Originally Published