Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet Bring Their Depth and Majesty to Brooklyn
After a raptly entrancing, magical hour and a half or so onstage and then a couple of encores Sunday night at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, trumpeter and existentialist sage Wadada Leo Smith addressed the crowd. He spoke of the difficulty of being in the moment, of pure, genuine existence without the distractions of history and an unknowable, as-yet nonexistent future – and yet, how that fleeting present is all we can possibly grasp. Smith also blew air kisses to a young gradeschooler in the crowd who’s made the decision to take up the trumpet herself, quite possibly with his influence. Which pretty much sums up what the iconic, eclectic jazz improviser and composer is all about: great affection and a deeply reasoned, carefully conceived approach to themes and variations.
Smith’s Golden Quartet has the rare kind of chemistry that comes from a collaboration that goes back years, a relative rarity in jazz these days. Drummer Pheeroan akLaff opened the show with a long, glistening, regal shower of cymbals, establishing a tone of unassailable victory that Smith would pick up on with similar resonance if a little less outright exuberance as the show unwound. From that moment, bassist John Lindberg took over, taking the atmsophere into smoky, stygian territory with his washes and swipes and some frenetic, frantic staccato bowing. Meanwhile, pianist Anthony Davis worked methodically to build a plaintive, often anguished, chromatic and tritone-fueled resonance that he’d soon throw to the lions via long, scampering cascades. Smith, for his part, chose his spots and his timbres with characteristic majesty and grace: somber, elegaic long tones; raspy, overtone-drenched duotones; steady flutters of bop, and the ancient-sounding, otherworldly, gracefully paced blues figures that have become his signature trope. Similarly, akLaff judiciously spaced his animated flurries, exchanging grins back and forth with Smith as the two brushed elbows for a dynamically charged push-pull.
Most of the material seemed culled from Smith’s recent Great Lakes Suite with his old AACM pal Henry Theadgill along with Lindberb and drummer Jack DeJohnette, but that was often completely disassembled and then reconfigured with an approach that was meticulous yet casually conversational: these guys seem to have more fun onstage than most people. Lindberg really got a workout, whether with his bandsaw bowing or pushing a couple of interludes toward an unexpectedlly kinetic, funky dance and an even more unexpected detour into straight-up 70s loft-jazz swing improvisation. Davis’ often mournful, lingering Satie-esque phrases provided contrast and sometimes an uneasy anchor. The interplay was as profound and considered as Smith’s themes: the occasional echo of just a single beat between a couple of group members signaling a change spoke to the repartee and focus of a group whose whole is as great as the sum of its parts. Descending from lofty, epic proportions, they closed the show with a trio of miniatures, including an especially spare, misterioso, deep-space concluding number.
Full disclosure: given the chance to cover Smith playing the entirety of his epic Civil Rights era suite Ten Freedom Summers at Roulette in 2013, this blog seized that opportunity. As transformative as those nights were, it was just as much of a treat to see Smith bring a similar gravitas and depth to more general emotional and philosophical terrain. Lucky Chicagoans can catch Smith with a trio of Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed on June 26-27 at 8:30 PM at Constellation, 111 N Western Ave.; tix are $15.