This compilation of two recording dates (from 1979 and 1981) by the trio of Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet, flügelhorn, African thumb piano and flute), Günter Sommer (percussion, organ pipes), and Peter Kowald (double bass) are one of only a few recordings the now legendary trio made. For that reason alone, to hear this group whose communication was so instinctual and open-ended, this recording is worth investigating. Three individuals from three different traditions and geographical locations (Chicago, Wuppertal, Dresden) forged a language system of tonal and harmonic equanimity, no matter the instruments chosen for their improvisation. Given that they were together only from 1978 through the beginning of 1982, and intermittently at that, these improvisations take on special significance because they are not the sounds of a band who have found a single voice to speak from to identify themselves with, but a trio of individuals seeking to encounter one another through the vibrational space of sound. On Touch the Earth - Break the Shells, all previous musical associations and musical preferences are left at the door of the recording studio. The individual compositions are credited not for the sake of attribution of idea, but for the purpose of identification as to who makes what beginning in a specific journey. As an example, listen to the way Kowald's "Tough the Earth" slides chromatically from one set of diatonic fourths to a pentatonic scalar series of eighths and sixteenths as it transitions into "Wind Song in a Dance of Unity," by Smith, who breaks out of his smattering skein of trumpet notes to shift gears and match Sommers' bells with an African thumb piano, allowing for Kowald to bow and then punch up the bass pizzicato on the open-E scale in "Rastafari in the Universe, where Smith's flute offers a floating approach of Kowald's microtonal direction instead of an overtonal one -- given the major chord pitch -- and Sommers' coaxing rubbed sonances from his drum skins. Each piece in the journey -- in both sessions -- is an exercise in individual surrender and unuttered thoughts, impressions, memories. The playing gets intense -- would you have it any other way -- but in a manner that makes the band hover, not fly away; they know where the ground is, and they can find, even in the heat of group improvisation, an interval to shift to in order to ground the proceedings before taking off again. This is music of the mind, certainly, but it is also from the body and the earth itself. This is free jazz that sings!
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek