With abstract jazz, Wadada Leo Smith writes praise. Since 2012 is enthusiastically welcomed ten summers of freedom, his records commemorated civil rights heroes, musical legends and America’s threatened landscape, reinforcing the trumpeter’s compositions with history. The 80-year-old knows that what a country commemorates speaks to its character. But what it protects speaks louder: its monumental 2016 release US national parks suggests expanding natural refuge guarantees to include cultural havens, such as New Orleans.
Smith’s last, Pacifica Coral Reef, falls within the scope of his last decade’s work, if not his sounds. It turns its horn to endangered coral reefs, which the United States and other countries have been slow to defend against climate change. Although Smith is a true conservationist, the thematic focus is reinforced by his two young collaborators, inveterate improviser (and scientific diver) Henry Kaiser, and Canadian music journalist (and amateur diver) Alex Varty, who plays guitar like it’s his full time job. job. Using a score Smith wrote in his own visual-musical dialect, Ankhrasmation, they deliver a transformative 55-minute tour through acoustic drones and outboard distortion, awash sporadically in the sparse Miles Davis-inspired phrasing that has always been Smith’s bread and butter.
The disc is a revelation for the three musicians. Varty, who has played in alternative rock bands before, proves to be a soulful and flexible Indian raga improviser, strumming unaccompanied for the first 10 minutes of the album. Kaiser, who has collaborated with luminaries from Terry Riley to Herbie Hancock, achieves a delicacy of effects and engineering that echoes David Torn, and Smith’s overdubs demonstrate his flair for soft, almost ambient soundscapes. The unusual configuration of the trio – two guitars and a trumpet – encourages us to forget what we know about the genre. Is it jazz? Classic? Or – God forbid – “world music”? And what exactly is the difference? After all, avoiding labels and hierarchies is an integral part of the philosophy behind Smith’s score.
A three-word portmanteau, Ankhrasmation, Smith says, is “a language, not a notation system.” It is made up of works on paper, paintings as much as musical instructions, full of luminous pictograms which propose ambiguous rules. The colors and forms of representation are open, prompting musicians to reflect on both personal experience and general concepts such as science. The tempo is marked more ordinarily, as a dynamic of slow and fast notes that unconventionally increase the “density level”, or the amount of noise that fills the composition. These guidelines slyly limit the egos of performers and composers, leaving the former to improvise, but only within limits. Players perform art as if they were writing ekphrastic poems with music. They too become the authors of the plays.
Smith’s score can be heard in Pacifica Coral Reefthe languorous, thoughtful rhythm of, which quickens as Kaiser and Varty exchange bluesy riffs. It’s also audible in the album’s abundant space, the way the luxurious tweaks and starts divide the single piece into something like movements, and in the wide gaps between the sonics of the three musicians: the sculpted feedback by Kaiser, Varty’s acoustic picking and Smith’s mournful horns are all deeply individual, while working together towards a cohesive composition. The result upsets the idea of a gang leader. Each player gives signals to the others, running an instrumentation relay race, swirling towards a center that doesn’t quite exist. And why should he? The centers are perspective towers. Not all roads have led to Rome, nor is the United States the hub of the 21st century. The very form of music as Pacifica Coral Reef subverts this flawed solipsism.
Such a concept is not new, nor is the core of Smith’s undetermined scores – he owes a debt to John Cage, among others. But the Ankhrasmation allows commentary, which so much of the vanguard of Smith’s generation and before shunned in favor of the process. With his magnificent and contemplative playing of instruments, Pacifica Coral Reef lets itself be a swan song for our ailing environment, and while some may find this pretentious news or a facile marketing narrative, the examination of the outside world is embedded within the framework of Smith’s musical practice. It’s also human: in our time of despair, suffering, insensitivity and uncertainty, fear of the future cannot be seen as a constraint to creativity. For Smith, Kaiser and Varty, anxiety rubs shoulders with music. We may not be able to identify it in the sounds they make, or label it with the literal language we have learned to use, but the earth wails to them and they respond, “I hear you”.
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