Wadada Leo Smith-America’s National Parks: Album Review

On America’s National Parks, Wadada Leo Smith adds another chapter to his United States history-based collection of compositions that first saw release with Ten Freedom Summers in 2012.  Having been heavily involved in the free-jazz community since the early 1970s, there’s little left to be analyzed in Smith’s handling of the horn, yet his voice continues to remain at the forefront of avant-garde instrumental music with each passing year.  Perhaps the success of this album hinges on the logical relationship between Smith’s practiced understanding of improvisation and the impactful cultural resonance of the subjects he has chosen to honor through this music.  The title is not entirely misleading as a majority of the songs are named after actual National Parks, however, Smith has stretched the underlying idea of National Parks to also include cultural landmarks and people who have achieved a National Park level of significance.  These monumental landmarks combined with Smith’s own “landmark” level of importance in his own community combine for a blissful album that breathes life through every massive peak and ominous valley.

From the first downbeat, “New Orleans” encompasses a certain swagger.  The open-ended bass groove leaves room for Smith to push and pull the rhythm with longstanding melodic lines and pointed accents of syncopation.  Although the piece hearkens back to the origins of jazz in New Orleans with these grooves, Smith remains true to the Golden Quartet’s sound with dramatic developments over the 20-minute span of the piece.  Bassist John Lindberg is left alone in space to break up the stagnation of the meter and trade ideas with cellist Ashley Walters—a new addition to the ensemble.  On “Eileen Jackson Southern,” a certain delicacy remains central.  Each fragile melodic fragment spills into the next as each individual maintains a certain isolation in their ideas.  “Yellowstone” contrasts this individuality with spaced out, unison melodies and slightly more swing-rooted solo sections with specified bass lines and drum patterns.  In adding the subtitle “The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem,” Smith nods to the various sections in the piece.  The spaced out unisons float along in high registers like mountains, whereas fiery solos constantly build tension to represent the intensity of the park’s geothermal activity.

The second half of the record fills even more space with “Mississippi River” spanning 30 minutes.  Although maintaining intrigue over the course of this long of a period of time is a momentous task, Smith compensates by spanning the widest dynamic range of any of the tracks up until this point.  Within the first couple minutes, the ensemble is enthralled with spastic improvisations.  As time moves on, however, certain ideas fade out, leaving drummer Pheeroan akLaff in wide open spaces for anticipation-driven cymbal crashes and tom hits.  At six minutes in length, “Sequoia” is obviously much more condensed, but the Golden Quartet manages to sneak in a couple memorable moments leading into akLaff’s final phrases in “Yosemite.”

The addition of Ashley Walters is certainly a welcome one.  In terms of mechanics, the cello works well because it finds a nice melodic niche between the Lindberg’s foundation and Smith’s atmospheric trumpet work.  Walters’ linear playing style also works into Smith’s sweeping style quite nicely.  Although Smith himself often plays quick, angular melodies, his liking to large spaces naturally suggests a slightly sluggish tempo.  Having a cello lets these moments flow forward as Walters continues to hold onto melodies with subtle changes making the space a bit livelier.  Walters also participates in the album’s rawer moments, gripping her bow tightly and unleashing unrefined beauty to match the daring intensity that Smith rips out of his horn.

Smith’s greatest attribute may be the continuity that he so naturally taps into whenever he plays.  Through each up and down, it feels as if Smith knows exactly what to do and when to do it.  Occasionally when things approach a stand-still, Smith blasts out a high note to usher in a complete change of pace.  Next, he’s holding onto melodic lines until the last possible second before disappearing entirely. He also lets the music breathe quite a bit, dropping out of the playing space whenever his presence seems unnecessary, which allows for logical developments and contrast to take place as different members of the ensemble find themselves in the foreground.

It’s clear that Wadada Leo Smith is still at the top of his game.  National Parks continues to show his many sides both as a composer and a band leader.  The ease with which his ensemble finds common ground allows for huge spaces to be filled with excitement, a quality that must come from the many years that the musicians have spent together.  Sometimes the urgency of youth makes for the most cutting edge musical accomplishments, but Smith presents an argument for the legitimacy of legacy.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10 Wadada Leo Smith’s mastery continues.

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