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Leo Smith - Spirit Catcher / Abbey Road Quartet

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Artist: Leo Smith

Album: Spirit Catcher / Abbey Road Quartet

Label: Nessa / Treader

Review date: Nov. 25, 2009

Separated by a 30 year gap, these two releases from Leo Smith give an interesting perspective on his journey. Dating back to 1979 (years before he became a Rastafarian and added “Wadada” to the front of his name, or the later “Ishmael”) Spirit Catcher finds Smith in a key period of his career. Having already played with kindred spirits in Anthony Braxton and in Derek Bailey’s Company, he was moving from solo improvisation to experimenting with radical new group compositions, underpinned by his own personal theories. Spirit Catcher came soon after the highly regarded Divine Love (ECM, 1979) where his muted trumpet was joined by those of Kenny Wheeler and Lester Bowie in an awesome threesome. On Spirit Catcher Smith creates contexts that are just as innovative as those on the ECM album.

The album opens with “Images,” a quintet piece which, as on the ECM album, is immediately given a cool, tranquillity by the inclusion in the rhythm section of Bobby Naughton’s vibes. Also retained from Divine Love is clarinetist Dwight Andrews; the two feed off each other and their lines interweave, complementing and enhancing one another. Throughout, the economy of Smith’s trumpet is worthy of comparison with Miles, foreshadowing his later Yo’ Miles group with Henry Kaiser.

More radical still are two takes of “The Burning of Stones,” on which the trumpet is accompanied by three harps. This setting takes Smith’s music way beyond the boundaries of “jazz.” Instead, this is almost a concerto for solo muted trumpet. But such distinctions become meaningless when the resulting music is this beautiful. The previously unreleased first take, included here, illustrates that this piece was not improvised but composed, the interactions between harps and trumpet being finely judged to display both to best effect. Dedicated to Braxton, it is Braxtonesque in its vision and its daring.

Leaping forward to August 2008, we find Smith in London, recording at Abbey Road Studios, at the behest of Treader proprietors Spring Heel Jack with whom Smith has regularly collaborated since The Sweetness of the Water (Thirsty Ear, 2004). The Abbey Road Quartet is completed by Spring Heel Jack’s John Coxon on guitar (and production duties) plus Pat Thomas on piano and synthesiser and Treader stalwart Mark Sanders on drums. With such a line-up, the music is predominantly improvised. Nonetheless, to hear it after the 1979 album is eerie; the long opener, “For Johnny Dyani” begins with an ambience uncannily similar to “The Burning of Stones,” with Thomas supplying fractured piano chords that fulfil a role like the harps, showcasing Smith’s solo trumpet. As Thomas shifts to harsher electronics and Coxon’s guitar comes to the fore, the track morphs into a piece that is rather less gentle.

Typically for Smith, the five tracks have different dedicatees. Each has a subtly different feel, creating an album of contrasts and variety. Their moods are largely determined by Smith’s own playing, influenced by the contexts created by the rest of the quartet. So, when Thomas switches to a delicate electric piano sound on “For Mongezi Feza,” Smith responds with a gently muted solo and the quartet creates an affectingly intimate tribute. In contrast, from its start “For Elton Dean” is given a rhythmic pulse by Sanders. Smith lets rip with a full-blooded solo and the others fade in and out, making a powerful impressionistic piece.

Taken as a pair, these albums showcase the breadth of Smith’s vision while emphasising its consistency across the past three decades. Remarkably, given the years separating them, tracks could be interchanged between the two without causing the listener undue alarm.

By John Eyles

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