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Wadada Leo Smith & Tumo: Occupy the World

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As he did in last year’s Pulitzer-nominated Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith again melds social concerns with deeply personal statements. TUMO, the ensemble Smith leads and conducts here, is a 21-piece Finnish improvisational orchestra consisting of players who prove equally fearless tackling Smith’s challenging scores and launching improvisations both solo and collective, juxtaposing the title composition-a meditation on the Occupy movement-with tributes to friends and colleagues. There’s even a musical portrait of Queen Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt during the 18th Dynasty. The disc was recorded in February 2012, in the days following the pieces’ debut performance at TUMFest 12 in Helsinki.

Characteristically, Smith places a strong emphasis on group statements (i.e., community), yet even during ensemble passages each voice is limned so precisely that the dichotomy between the “individual” and the “collective” virtually disappears. Despite the epic sweep of his themes, Smith also avoids grandiosity: “Queen Hatshepsut,” for all its regal stateliness, flows with sensual grace; the solos of alto saxophonist Mikko Innanen and tenor saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist are alternately tender and querulously barking; flutist Juhani Aaltonen’s exotic, bird-like flutters are redeemed from preciousness by the earthy growls and chirps that emanate from the orchestra behind him.

“The Bell – 2” is a sequel to a Smith composition that was originally included on Anthony Braxton’s 1968 debut on Delmark, and Smith has structured this piece as a dialogue among groups, not just individuals. “Mount Kilimanjaro (Love and Compassion for John Lindberg)” is an expansion/elaboration on Smith’s earlier “Africana World,” primarily a showcase for its honoree, bassist Lindberg. “Crossing on a Southern Road” is another tribute, this time to the late saxophonist Marion Brown. Expanding on the title’s obvious reference to the old Crossroads myth, the piece is infused with an undercurrent of danger and dread.

The title composition poses as many questions as it answers-the tranquility underlying even its most militant passages, as well as the ever-shifting emphasis among solo and collective voices, demand that we ask ourselves what “peace” and “freedom” truly mean, what “community” truly means, and what it might take to attain them. Although it builds to a seething ferocity, it never explodes into anarchy or belligerence. Instead, it’s infused with an almost Blakean sense of optimism.

Originally Published