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Wadada Leo Smith - Procession of the Great Ancestry

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Artist: Wadada Leo Smith

Album: Procession of the Great Ancestry

Label: Nessa

Review date: Mar. 5, 2009

An important and long-overdue reissue, this one features the trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith at the peak of his 1980s work. At the time of this 1983 recording, he was crafting his theories later captured by the term Ankhrasmation, but was still very much a product of the ethos (or should we say ethoi) of the AACM, whose motto “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future” facilitated precisely the kind of syncretic playing heard throughout this Chicago date. With longtime companions Bobby Naughton (whose vibraphone is central to so much of Smith’s work from this period), bassist Joe Fonda, and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, Smith takes in everything from wafting polytonal essays in texture (the title track, dedicated to Miles Davis) to amalgams of reggae and blues (the opening “Jah Jah is the Perfect Love,” one of several places where Smith sings as well).

Over the course of these pieces – many of which make up a series of dedications to trumpeters who have inspired Smith – the leader displays his incredible instrumental range. He takes in most of the trumpet’s idiomatic associations – a tightly polished mute phrase, a lower register strawberry, a quick clarion post-bop lick – and blends them in a very distinct fashion, tracing a bold line amidst the billowing vibe chords, cymbals and solemn bass heard throughout. His distinctly colorful style is abetted by a truly sympathetic group of improvisers. El’Zabar adds a fantastic bestiary of percussive sound to these pieces; his range and imagination are absolutely crucial to the blend of the ominous and the puckish heard here. A young Fonda is riveting in his bass playing on this track, punctuating certain statements and throwing wrenches into others (he switches to electric on the opener and on “Who Killed David Walker,” both of which add second bassist Mchaka Uba and guitarist Louis Myers).

The pieces run together seamlessly, their gauzy edges blending even if the whole doesn’t sound soft. Indeed, the music is at times rumbling, halting and percussive, as on the Booker Little dedication “The Flower That Seeds the Earth,” whose dark hues and melancholy open the way for the staccato patterns of “The Third World, Grainery of Pure Earth” (with a gruff, swinging disposition dedicated to Roy Eldridge). But while things are often flinty and emphatic, the heart of this music is reflective and abstract, heard nowhere more effectively than in the stirring hymn for MLK (where Smith’s trumpet is joined by John Powell’s tenor sax) that concludes the disc. Praises to Nessa for bringing this gem back.

By Jason Bivins

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