It’s hard to imagine another artist who has been as prolific and perennially relevant in his seventh decade as Wadada Leo Smith. His epic Civil Rights Era-themed 2013 triple-disc set Ten Freedom Summers is probably one of the hundred best albums ever made in any style of music.
Occupy Wall Street? Why not Occupy the World, as Smith suggested with a transcendently good orchestral album. He’s also saluted America’s National Parks, composed a rapt, oceanic Great Lakes suite, played huge amounts of solo Monk on trumpet, and now has a brand new triple-disc set of often darkly inspiring duo and trio recordings, Sacred Ceremonies, streaming at Spotify, It’s music to get completely lost in and will give you hope at a time when we really, really need it.
The sad undercurrent here is that we lost the iconic Milford Graves last year. In a crushing stroke of irony, it was a heart ailment that claimed the greatest cardiac medical pioneer to ever play the drums. Fortuitously, two of these discs feature Graves, the first in a duo with Smith, the other in a trio set with bassist Bill Laswell. In between, Smith and Laswell explore less friendly atmospheres.
Graves’ shamanic toms, oscillating cymbals and mystical rimwork back Smith’s characteristically spacious, terse lines on the opening disc’s five expansive tracks. Sometimes Graves’ boom is such that it’s as if he’s playing a tapan barrel drum from the Balkans. In what could have been a stroke of intuition on Smith’s part, he gives his bandmate centerstage much of the time, when he’s not channeling somber 19th century blues and gritty variations, mournful foghorn washes, austerely sailing lines punctuated by deft trills and clusters, and the occasional call of the wild.
The two slowly bring in a fond, mutedly suspenseful ballad, in just short of fifteen minutes, in the fourth track. As the two make their way upward, part of Graves’ kit sounds like a giant tabla from the great beyond. And his chugging, gnawa-like cymbals behind Smith’s coy Stevie Wonder paraphrases in the final duo number are a stunningly surreal touch.
The Smith/Laswell duos on disc two are 180 degrees from that, typically edging toward a Bob Belden post-Miles noir atmosphere, with a more defined low/high dichotomy and less interplay. To Laswell’s infinite credit, he chills – literally – in the background as Smith takes flight, frequently with a mute. Feeling some low pressure here, the trumpeter picks up the energy and the catchy riffage significantly. If you want to hear Wadada Leo Smith playing parts – well, a little bit – this is it. Laswell loves loves loves that flange pedal, or its digital equivalent, set to deep freeze, and sticks with it, sometimes in tandem with a wah, a loop box and an arsenal of light sabers. Smith’s utterly Lynchian chromatics over spare pedalpoint in Mysterious Night and then the concluding Minnie Riperton elegy are the highlights.
Smith’s spine-tingling flares and Graves’ churning, kaleidescopic murk (who knew such an oxymoron could exist? He did) pair off over Laswell’s warp and wooze to open the third disc, essentially a reprise of the second disc with more of a dystopic drive. Smith holds the whole thing together, more or less, playing with a mute, a white-knuckle angst and a clenched-teeth smile as Graves motors along the stygian underground, Laswell’s robotically cold calculations piercing the veil now and again. Yet Smith’s saturnine solo intro to the fourth track here could be the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment on the whole record.