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Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell - The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer

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Artist: Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell

Album: The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer

Label: Kabel

Review date: Jan. 10, 2011

It buggers the mind to know that this session sat unheard for nearly a quarter century after its initial taping at Brandeis University’s student radio station in 1986. The mere presence of drummer Ed Blackwell, an under-recorded but enormously important figure in jazz, should have put it on the shelves before Reagan got out of office. Blackwell, who was born two weeks before the October 1929 stock market crash and grew up in New Orleans, was Ornette Coleman’s man at the traps in the mid-’50s. Those were the years in which the saxophonist worked out what would become free jazz, and Blackwell’s combination of flexibility and utter lucidity was key to the music’s underlying coherence. In 1969, he and Don Cherry broke and re-set new molds on the two volumes of Mu, which opened a dialogue between jazz and a world of deep, non-academic folkloric traditions.

Trumpet/flugelhorn/flute/mbira player Wadada Leo Smith, who was born eleven days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and grew up in the Mississippi Delta, is not an originator on the order of Blackwell. But he is a singular figure who has found a way to make his presence count equally with radical AACM conceptualists like Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins, uncategorizable figures like Marion Brown and Anthony Davis, and barely-known Canadian and highly celebrated European improvisers whilst operating in out-of-the-way locales like Connecticut and Iceland. Nowadays, he’s enjoying a late career surge, with a stream of spiritually themed new releases coming out on Cuneiform and reissues of his ‘70s catalog on Tzadik and Nessa, as well as magisterial live and recorded performances with the German drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer.

If this music had come out in the 1980s, it probably would have been viewed as a sequel to Mu; now it’s tempting to view it as a prequel to Smith’s recent horn-drums duos with Sommer, Adam Rudolph and Jack DeJohnette. But such interpretations, while valid, draw attention from the immediacy of Smith and Blackwell’s connection. They already knew about the past, and they weren’t worrying about the future; they were making something happen right now, and that immediacy is indelible.

You can hear that in the miniscule adjustments Blackwell makes to the parade-ground beat on “Sellassie-I” (Smith is a bit of a spiritual itinerant; currently a Muslim, he was deep into Rastafarianism during the ‘80s) and “Seven Arrows in the Garden if Light” in order to sustain the magnetic tension in Smith’s procession of melodies and the perfectly applied grit he uses to bring the title track to a rolling boil.

This is marvelously colorful music, each plink of metal or thud of wood on skin alive with implications of time and place, but it’s the ceaseless motion more than the sounds themselves that make it thrilling.

By Bill Meyer

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