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Wadada Leo Smith - Spiritual Dimensions

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Artist: Wadada Leo Smith

Album: Spiritual Dimensions

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Feb. 3, 2010

It’s been quite a decade for Wadada Leo Smith, the trumpeter, composer, and conceptualist whose career highlights include everything from the magnificent chamber improvisations of the Creative Construction Company to the gonzo fun of his Yo Miles! projects (co-led with guitarist Henry Kaiser). With reissues, major performances, and steady work for his steady bands – not to mention a well deserved cover story on the latest issue of The Wire – Smith’s been able to showcase the depth of his vision, the intensity of his personal sound, and the range of his interests musical and spiritual.

Spiritual Dimensions, a fantastic twofer from Cuneiform, presents Smith in a context that takes in the furthest reaches of his imagination even as it thrills via its precisely articulated group sound. The first disc features a version of his Golden Quintet, with Vijay Iyer on piano and synthesizer, bassist John Lindberg, and the incredible drum tandem of Pheeroan AkLaff (where’s he been?) and Don Moye. The second features his Organic group, with Lindberg and AkLaff back on board, joined by cellist Okkyung Lee, electric bassist Skuli Sverisson, and a glorious trio of guitarists in Brandon Ross, Nels Cline, and Michael Gregory (Lamar Smith makes it a quartet on two tracks).

While both groups explore the territories that have preoccupied Smith for quite a long time – various iterations of post-Miles, post-free group (though you can’t really listen to Smith and take the “post-“ seriously) – there’s a freshness and vitality to this music that makes these two live dates more than simply a nod to small group records like Tabligh and to the Yo Miles projects. The Golden Quintet recording, from the 2008 Vision Festival, smolders from the outset. But nothing about it sounds content to settle into dark, moody impressionism. As enjoyable as that might be, this group’s sound is all about subtle inflections and gestures that resonate hugely, the well chosen word that alters the page as it were.

Iyer’s contributions are crucial in this regard, with tons of space in his playing and really intense (but never overbearing) electric incisions. Smith absolutely thrives in a context like this, his trumpet a generator of roiling color, at times sounding like molten ore or like sun strafing. He’s absolutely riveting on his long feature at the beginning of “Pacifica,” muted and ominous as he wends his way sinuously through the tension-filled space. As important as line and pulse are, it’s a music that’s defined by context and a shared commitment to the sound. The most powerful moments are the ones where the players seem to melt into each other, like the hush of “Crossing Sirat” or the outrageous raveup “South Central L.A. Kulture,” with Lindberg’s electronically modified acoustic creating big thunderclaps and wow-wow funk.

The same tune opens up the Organic disc, recorded at New Haven’s Firehouse 12. There’s a beautiful low trumpet rasp before the band drones in and Smith takes off for the upper reaches. The four tracks here are filled with swirling electronics and deep, nasty funk. Sverisson’s huge flapping bass anchors “Angela Davis,” which in some ways is the standout from this band. As much of a kick as I get listening to Smith and AkLaff, Okkyung Lee sounds absolutely sizzling here, with overtones and slashes flying around all over the place. And it’s an absolute delight to listen to the three very different guitarists. The kids will freak out for Nels, but the great Brandon Ross is here doing his thing, and it’s especially marvelous to hear the legendary (well, to me anyways) Michael Gregory. It’s pure lightning, with seamless interweaving of themes, color, and harmony, as different sub-groupings join Smith and Lee as they wander the tune’s swaggering thickets. In a perfect world, the kids would be blasting this from car stereos.

Spiritual Dimensions is about as authentic as you could hope for, music that brims with possibility and reveals new dimensions on each listen. A marvelous crystallization of what makes Smith’s music so fantastic.

By Jason Bivins

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