REVIEW: Wadada Leo Smith at Café Oto

Wadada Leo Smith at Cafe Oto, July 2016
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All rights reserved.

Wadada Leo Smith
(Café Oto, 23 July, first night of two-night residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is something of an international treasure in the creative musical firmament, linking avant-garde jazz with contemporary classical compositional practice. At 74 his wealth of experience includes early involvement with Chicago's AACM, stints with Anthony Braxton and Derek Bailey's Company, and recording for cutting edge labels such as Cuneiform, Treader and Tzadik, and, since 1979, ECM, most recently with Vijay Iyer. He has garnered numerous awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and is also much in demand as an inspiring educator. With his warm, generous personality he connected with the Saturday audience at Café Oto right from the start.

If Wadada can do anything he can make the trumpet speak - and it speaks volumes. For him, the trumpet is a vehicle for exploration, for getting deep in to the subterrannean heartland of jazz and for building up cast-iron bonds with the musicians he plays with and with his audiences. The urgency and immediacy of Wadada's delivery is underpinned by a deeply ingrained authority and an incisive process of imaginative distillation that finds expression in complex, layered compositions, notably his epic Ten Freedom Summers suite or, as in this Café Oto concert, flights of inspired improvisation.

Two improvised sets, two entirely different propositions, both steered and shaped with a confidence born out of Wadada's natural sixth sense.

The first was in trio format with two of the most resourceful and versatile jazz improvisers around, percussionist Mark Sanders and John Edwards on double bass. Dreadlocked, grizzle-bearded, in an elegant cream suit, Wadada's hunched figure brought a shimmering energy into play. With Sanders and Edwards his history goes back around eight years, and the duo locked straight in to a soft-textured, rapidly morphing substrate to complement the crisp, vibrant poetry of his playing. Wadada's sharp, fluorescent tones cut through the high-performance bass and drum carpet ride, with ringing mute applied to summon echoes of the directions Miles would have travelled.

After the break, the trio expanded to include a frequent collaborator with Wadada, New York-based sound artist, Hardedge and, in the spirit of his Ten Freedom Summers performances at Café Oto in 2013 (Reviewed HERE and HERE ), six string players whose cosmopolitan range brought one of many smiles to Wadada's face as he introduced them. With Kenyan-born Alison Blunt (violin) were Luiz Moretto (viola) and Marcio Mattos (cello), both Brazilians, and Paloma Carrasco, originally from Madrid, each now London-based, along with Benedict Taylor (viola) and David Leahey (as a second bass player).

Peppered with minute electronic cracks and interventions, the set had the spirit of structured, industrial anarchy, drawing on the imperative to share the initiatives within the large group organism and to work with the bursts of clear sky offered by Wadada to shape its visceral edge. His sequence of intense, one-on-one duets with each of the string players brought out fast-forward one-liners that magically added up to a rounded, organic whole. With Moretto the energy level of the duet was at high-flying bluegrass pace, a contrast to the quiet restraint of the concluding passages, stripped down to focus thoughtfully on the original trio - and he hinted, too, that he, Edwards and Sanders may well be recording together soon.