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Wadada Leo Smith - Snakish

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Artist: Wadada Leo Smith

Album: Snakish

Label: Leo

Review date: Jun. 26, 2005

Career longevity and creative improvised music are often contradictory concepts; the latter hardly ever ends up conducive to the former. Wadada Leo Smith has kept his cool by keeping just ahead of the curve, ears cognizant of the past, but also cocked expectantly to the future. Over three decades he’s embraced eclectic elements in the honing of his own musical craft. Electronics, funk, African and Asian music, classical, blues, rock and a host of other constituents checker his many past projects, all joined to an underlying chassis of improvisatory forms. The hype surrounding Snakish suggests that Smith purportedly deems it his finest work to date. It’s a claim I find a bit dubious given the sometimes boilerplate nature of what’s here.

His colleagues in the cause are all new names to me. Walter and Katya Quintus, who appear from their liner photos to be father and daughter, handle computer and voice chores, respectively. Mark Nauseef contributes on percussion and live electronics, while Miroslav Tadic works the frets of his classical and baritone guitars. Fourteen tracks drift by in just over three quarters of an hour, most hovering in the four-minute range. The music is of the multifarious and sometimes inscrutable exploratory ilk that the Leo specializes in. Much of the interplay suggests the structure of an organic collage with components intersecting and overlapping each other at odd, often disorienting angles. Muted trumpet, lilting voice and filigree guitar slither through an airy expanse of electronic haze and processed static. Nauseef’s percussion is often industrial in cast, clanking and clamoring in staccato bursts or scuttling disjointedly around the edges. His orchestral work on “Speeds Per Coil,” in conjunction with Tadic’s koto-sounding guitar, makes for a potent union of the ethereal and visceral.

Like his partners, Smith works as colorist and texturalist for much of the music’s duration. “Over the Influence” finds him whetting his trumpet tone to a sharp brassy point that pierces Tadic’s shimmering counterpoint strums. On “Yopo,” his input unfolds as a bricolage of mouthpiece pops and eructative snorts, shadowed by the swirling buzz of oscillating electronics and murky processed percussion. Even with the seemingly unfettered palette at the players’ disposal, monotony creeps in. Quintus’ solemn recitations, both in English, and what sounds like an Eastern European tongue, don’t help matters. Layered on top of the lugubrious gloom constructed by the instruments they threaten to topple the music over into camp. The program relies a bit too resolutely on ambiance and atmospherics at the expense of a consistent narrative thrust.

Others followers of Smith may find otherwise, but I found portions of this set a puzzling bore. The variegated parts just don’t quite congeal into a cohesive and momentous whole. While Smith’s career is hardly on the wane, this date feels like a misstep when pondered against what’s come prior.

By Derek Taylor

Other Reviews of Wadada Leo Smith

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Spiritual Dimensions

Ten Freedom Summers

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