Despite the fact that they've shared several stages over the past 40 years, Ancestors marks the first occasion that trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo have ever recorded together. Smith, one of the true progenitors of creative improvised music, has made numerous duo recordings with drummers, among them Ed Blackwell, Jack DeJohnette, and percussionist Adam Rudolph. Moholo-Moholo, a founding member of South Africa's Blue Notes, has also made duo recordings, usually with pianists, including Irene Schweizer, Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, and Marilyn Crispell. Smith is an extremely dexterous player: he can improvise with anyone as his many recordings attest, from the Creative Construction Company to his Golden Quartet to his Yo Miles! band with Henry Kaiser. Moholo-Moholo literally invented a method of drumming that doesn't rely on African drumming traditions, but instead uses a host of elements from microtones and polyrhythms, to empty space and dynamic accents. What's compelling about this set is the way the dialogue emerges. On "Moholo-Moholo/Golden Spirit," Smith uses a Miles Davis-esque muted style of melodic phrasing over, in, around, and under Moholo-Moholo's tonal assertions. They drop out, only to re-emerge in changed form without ever giving the impression of dissociation from Smith's direct and implied lyricism. The drummer contributed "Siholaro," which commences with his own series of repetitious, sonically accented vamps. When Smith enters, that circular style of rhythm changes accents from one tom-tom to another, from a bass drum to another tom. Smith offers a slippery, lightly swinging response, allowing spaces between his phrases for the drums to reassert themselves as a melodic instrument in the mix. The title piece is a suite made up of five short, medium, and long parts. Smith plays percussion in addition to trumpet. Over its 25-minute length, Smith uses jazz history, quoting from Monk's "'Round Midnight" and Miles' "Milestones" and other jazz standards, while stretching their language to where it breaks and becomes one of his own invention. Whether using a mute or a breath restraint technique, playing inside or outside, all he hears is the sound of new ideas and fragments communicated via Moholo-Moholo's various tonalities, cadences, and tempos bringing forth new tensions, releases, and spaces. Ancestors is an intimate, canny dialogue between two great masters whose creative common language is not only expressive, it's edifying.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek