Live: Wadada Leo Smith Throws Himself A Lively Birthday Party At Roulette


Wadada Leo Smith 70th Birthday Celebration
Friday, December 16

Better than: Hearing one band for the price of three.

Last year during a pre-concert interview at the Library Of Congress in Washington D.C., composer-trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith got a laugh when he spoke about recruiting bassist John Lindberg. At the time, Smith was in the process of rebuilding his long-running Golden Quartet after the passing of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Malachi Favors; the loss was so formidable, it inspired the trumpeter to use a tactic more moneyball than jazz. “Well, John was the first guy I called,” recounted Smith. “And I did him like they do the baseball and basketball players—took him out to a big restaurant in Chicago. The name had ‘steak house’ or something in it. I talked to him nice… and made sure he had all the steaks he wanted.”

If those shanks of beef set Smith back at all, Lindberg has made up for it by settling into the role of Smith’s MVP. The veteran trumpeter led three surprisingly varied ensembles on Friday, the second evening of a 70th birthday fête that signified Smith’s continued exploration—which at times sounded tensile—as much as it summed his career. Besides Smith’s own clarion elegance, Lindberg’s bass was the one fixture—as chairs were added to accommodate the 21-piece Silver Orchestra, as pianists and drummers were subbed and multiplied (at one point there were three rhythmatists on stage), and as the amped-up electricity of three guitarists and a plugged-in bass squared off with Lindberg, cellist Okkyung Lee and pianist Angelica Sanchez in Smith’s Organic ensemble, the evening’s capper. Throughout the evening Smith spent as much time cueing and conducting as blowing, while Lindberg had a technique for every frisson: some plucking here, some bowing there, a wah-wah pedal when the mix got ultra-thick.

The relentless activity robbed the evening of some of its flow. What it revealed over and over again, however, was the spatial mastery built into Smith’s concept. He spent much of the first set, by the Golden Sextet, padding around the stage while holding up fingers and nodding in the direction of a chosen soloist. The strength of his hand-picked musicians meant that each interlude (like the dynamic discussion between long-time-no-hear vibraphonist Bobby Naughton and drummers Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan ak Laff) would develop its own improvisational gravity. And yet, it was when Smith assumed his playing position—feet together, knees slightly bent, shoulders crouched over them—that the proceedings achieved true focus. Epic force seemed to make its way up from the floor and out through the bell of his trumpet. Perhaps fittingly, the set’s highest point turned out to be a balladic duet between Smith and Lindberg, whose chords complemented the prismatically raw cries of the trumpet.

The rest of the evening continued to function as a feast of inspired solos, despite the fact that the Silver Orchestra set was clearly intended to spotlight Smith’s compositional ability. Though much of the music alternated between prickly modernist bleating and full-ensemble calls somewhere between siren and train whistle, the personality of the compositions were fleshed out by, among others, pianist Yuko Fujiyama, saxist Marty Ehrlich and especially violinist Jennifer Choi, the featured player on “Africana 2.” Later, perhaps in answer to the metal-machine prog ‘n’ roll whipped up by the Organic ensemble, cellist Okkyung Lee pulled off a solo that was a true marvel of dissonant extended techniques. Ak Laff’s big tom-tom groove was thunderingly potent, but between Smith, Lee and Lindberg, it was almost as if acousticism was striking back.

Critical bias: Might have been nice to hear sump’n from “Ten Freedom Summers”, Smith’s recent, much-talked-about civil rights suite.

Random notebook dump: The new Roulette’s acoustics are remarkably balanced everywhere, but the balcony houses the sweet spot.

Set list:
Golden Sextet
Al-Shadhili’s Litany of the Sea: Sunrise
South Central L.A. Kulture

Silver Orchestra
Central Park
Africana 2 (Violin Concerto)
Occupy The World for Life, Liberty and Justic

Leroy Jenkins’ Air Steps
The Well from Bitter to Fresh Water, Pt. 2
Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy