Wadada Leo Smith Celebrates The Centennial Of America's National Parks

Oct 17, 2016
Originally published on August 28, 2017 8:16 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says five decades after Wadada Leo Smith began recording, the trumpeter and composer is having his moment with a Pulitzer nomination three years ago and a bounty of institutional support. Smith's Golden Quintet is both a jazz band and a chamber ensemble. Their new album is called "America's National Parks." Here's Kevin's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF WADADA LEO SMITH COMPOSITION, "THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER: DARK AND DEEP DREAMS FLOW THE RIVER - A NATIONAL MEMORIAL PARK C. 5000 BC")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Wadada Leo Smith came up in Chicago as part of a group of African-American composers, including Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton. Mostly trained in jazz, they drew on and sometimes floated between the languages of improvised and modern composed music. They didn't care if the classical establishment found them naive or if jazz watchdogs accused them of watering down the jazz brand. They regarded any sources as fair game and they played it all with their own inflections.

(SOUNDBITE OF WADADA LEO SMITH COMPOSITION, "THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER: DARK AND DEEP DREAMS FLOW THE RIVER - A NATIONAL MEMORIAL PARK C. 5000 BC")

WHITEHEAD: Wadada Leo Smith's new two-CD suite, "America's National Parks," was occasioned by the park service's first hundred years, but the concept is a little loose. That last section we heard from is for the Mississippi River, not officially a national park. Smith doesn't always put his horn out front, but his trumpet is the group's heart. Like Miles Davis, he'll often play with a harmon mute to get one of the most human sounds you can coax from a horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF WADADA LEO SMITH COMPOSITION, "(THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER: DARK AND DEEP DREAMS FLOW THE RIVER - A NATIONAL MEMORIAL PARK C. 5000 BC")

WHITEHEAD: Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quintet includes three longtime allies, pianist and composer Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummer dynamo Pheeroan akLaff. New music cellist Ashley Walters is almost a one-woman string section, balancing out the jazz and chamber music sides.

The six movements of the suite, "America's National Parks," are mini-suites in themselves. Smith's written themes can be deceptively simple, like a sketch of a melody to be filled in later. The players may run with those themes or use them to set a mood. Smith's salute to Yellowstone National Park contains this geyser of a line.

(SOUNDBITE OF WADADA LEO SMITH COMPOSITION, "YELLOWSTONE" THE FIRST NATIONAL PARK AND THE SPIRIT OF AMERICA - THE MOUNTAINS, SUPER-VOLCANO CALDERA AND ITS ECOSYSTEM 1872")

WHITEHEAD: To shape the quintet's music, composer Wadada Leo Smith uses straight notation, collective and solo improvisation and pictorial scores the players can interpret in various ways. In most any setting, he likes resonant open space to give the music room to breathe.

(SOUNDBITE OF WADADA LEO SMITH COMPOSITION, "YELLOWSTONE: THE FIRST NATIONAL PARK AND THE SPIRIT OF AMERICA - THE MOUNTAINS, SUPER-VOLCANO CALDERA AND ITS ECOSYSTEM 1872")

WHITEHEAD: One thing that fascinates Wadada Leo Smith about our national parks is the idea of the commons, those resources available to anyone who can access them. He sees musical traditions in a similar way. He's free to use jazz and classical and other available musics for his own recreation.

That common ground outside stylistic bounds is where he learned to tell his own story, revealing where he comes from and where he's traveled. And on "America's National Parks," the Golden Quintet make Wadada's far-flung music sound not like glittering fragments but like one big organic thing, one coast-to-coast landscape.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "America's National Parks," the new recording by Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quintet. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, the true story of the albino African-American brothers from Virginia who spent much of their lives in freak shows and were billed as sheep-headed cannibals, ambassadors from Mars. My guest will be journalist Beth Macy. Her new book is about these brothers and what their lives illustrate about race, class and entertainment in the early 20th century. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY COMPOSITION, "BLACK SQUIRREL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY COMPOSITION, "BLACK SQUIRREL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.