Dark Lady of the Sonnets
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s spacious, meterless melodies and abstract compositions take the expanded post-free-jazz sonic palette of Chicago’s AACM as a jumping-off point, inhabiting a still, meditative space that’s uniquely his own. Drummer Pheeroan akLaff, with whom Smith has worked since the 1970s, can go as far out as any bandleader might require. But he can just as easily set up a thick, heavy-footed rock or funk groove. Although she plays a classical Chinese instrument — the lute-like pipa — Min Xiao-Fen operates in the same zone of thoughtful improvisation as her two bandmates, having collaborated with heavyweights like John Zorn and guitarist Derek Bailey. The African mbira, or thumb piano, provides a name and a concept for the trio, but doesn’t physically figure into the music.
The five pieces on Dark Lady of the Sonnets, all composed by Smith, grant equal weight to each member’s contributions. The leader’s trumpet is melancholy, introspective and sometimes cutting. Smith’s tone is clear and carefully considered, implying a deep grounding in the blues without resorting to clichéd smears or growls. Min Xiao-Fen’s pipa frequently sounds like a koto strung with barbed wire. At other times, her gnarled bursts of notes recall her former collaborator Bailey, as she seems to be playing a slightly out-of-tune guitar with remarkable aggression. During the disc’s second half, she also sings.
Drummer akLaff never tries to corral the other two into a specific rhythm pattern. Instead, he accents and spotlights what they’re doing with carefully deployed cymbal washes and gentle rumblings from the kit. This album is more than an ad hoc meeting of complementary musical spirits; it’s a summit conference, combining multiple improvisatory traditions into something entirely new.
— Phil Freeman