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In the year leading up to his 80th birthday this past December, the ageless trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith released no less than three multi-disc boxed sets — including The Chicago Symphonies, a much-heralded four-CD set with his Great Lakes Quartet (featuring Henry Threadgill) — and two single discs, one of which, A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday, marks the first recording of pianist Vijay Iyer with drummer Jack DeJohnette. (For more on these albums, see the January digital issue of JAZZIZ.)
For Wadada, 80 sounds like the new 40, assuming that 40 is a good age at which to have a nuclear reactor hooked up to one’s metabolism. March brings two more major projects: a seven-CD set of string quartets, composed between 1965 and 2018, and Emerald Duets (TUM), four CDs of duets with drummers Pheeroan akLaff, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille and Jack DeJohnette.
Wadada made his first horn-and-traps record with the irreplaceable Ed Blackwell in 1986, and since then, he states, “I have the most drum duets in the history of this music. I don’t even have to count it anymore; I know that for a fact. It’s one of the most intimate ways of working when there’s another partner.”
Really? Most artists opt for piano or bass, maybe guitar, when it comes to building a cozy musical cocoon for two. Why drums?
”First of all,” he replies, “you have the occasion to really hear what the sound is — because the trumpet sound is not colored by other instruments; it’s only colored by the overtones in the drums and cymbals. And therefore the trumpet can actually feed off of some of those overtones, and it gives a good emphasis for mobility” — in other words, the auditory biofeedback serves as a springboard for his own tonal manipulation. “The overtones from the cymbals cover the space. If you had a piano, the piano resonance would be in there. If you had a bass, or another horn, they would be in there. So minus that, it’s like an unveiling, as opposed to having ‘less there.’ You have everything that you need. You hear and feel everything in that capsule of motion.
“And I just love the sound of drums. Piano duets are similar, but the piano doesn’t have the bass drum and snare and the toms and 25 cymbals.”
Each disc on Emerald Duets features a different drummer. And these are very different drummers in terms of their musical personae, and also their associations with Wadada. The effervescently soulful Pheeroan akLaff first played with him more than 45 years ago; after a three-decade hiatus, they resumed their partnership about a dozen years ago, and most recently staged a series of pre-pandemic duo recitals. DeJohnette, with whom Wadada shares Chicago roots, has appeared on a handful of his recordings — including The Chicago Symphonies, where some duo sections whet the appetite for what’s in store. Cyrille — a portrait of elegant power who turned 82 last year — and the Dutch percussion provocateur Han Bennink barely register in Wadada’s discography, but both are well-known to him, and to followers of liberated improvisation during the past half-century.
Even those well versed in these drummers’ styles should prepare themselves for something unexpected on Emerald Duets, however. “I can tell you that on these drum duets, there’s a big surprise on at least two of them,” Wadada laughs. “I’m not gonna reveal it. That’s how the mystery starts.” — Neil Tesser