Wadada Leo Smith

The Great Lakes Suites

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The Great Lakes Suites Review

by Thom Jurek

Wadada Leo Smith continues to surprise after winning 2013's Pulitzer Prize for Music for Ten Freedom Summers. Smith has an extended relationship with Finland's TUM label and has issued a series of high-quality recordings for them in a variety of contexts. That said, The Great Lakes Suites is the very best of them -- thus far -- and one of the finest in his long career. Containing six suite-like compositions spread over two discs, each is named for a Great Lake and one for Lake St. Clair. The album boasts a dream team of a band: Smith on trumpet, alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist John Lindberg. Smith's intention was to reflect the flat surfaces of the lakes and the volatility under their surfaces, but you don't need to get the concept in order to thoroughly enjoy what's on offer. Each member is not only an exceptional improviser but a composer as well. They play the material with the discipline, creativity, and intuition required by each of those talents. The 22-minute "Lake Michigan" has short melodic statements, but it's DeJohnette's turbulent roil and Lindberg's rumbling arco that fuel the middle. As the front line moves through the lyric statements, the rhythm section draws out Threadgill, who unfurls from sparse timbral exhalations to a flurry of spiraling arpeggios. "Lake Superior" commences with the rhythm section as Lindberg establishes a minimal vamp. The blurry blues feel of the horn players is extended by DeJohnette's active fills and rolls. When the flowing dynamic is established, Lindberg begins to strum with stops and double stops as Smith takes off with smatterings of tonal multiphonics and bleating single notes. Threadgill's solo comes right out of the blues and turns them inside out as DeJohnette whirls atop, around, and through him and Lindberg. The second disc contains equal panache. "Lake Huron" begins with group improvisation that gives way to Lindberg's gorgeous arco solo -- in all three registers -- as DeJohnette whispers in affirmation. Threadgill's solo is a fluid textural presentation and a set highlight. Smith's solo is in sharp contrast; it's slow, blue, and nearly sings the theme. He uses a minimal number of notes to achieve a masterful exploration of the tune's parameters. On "Lake St. Clair," DeJohnette dances through each section as Smith offers different lyric statements. Threadgill follows sparingly before the rhythmic interplay eventually transforms the groove into a loose funk and Smith and Threadgill take it out. The Great Lakes Suites is the most accessible of Smith's recordings. Virtually any modern jazz fan can find a way inside these compositions thanks to the depth of this collective's canny communicative dialogue.

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
1 Wadada Leo Smith 17:25 Amazon
2 Wadada Leo Smith 17:37 Amazon
3 Wadada Leo Smith 13:40 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick