Dark Lady of the Sonnets

“Zulu Water Festival”


At the age of 80, Wadada Leo Smith remains a powerful creative force. The past few years have seen a tsunami of activity from the trumpeter and composer, who continues to release compelling and ambitious music in a variety of settings. Of course, this is nothing new for Smith, who has frequently sought intriguing ways to present his art. Among them was his trio Mbira, in which he played alongside, and wrote music specifically for, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and longtime associate and Detroit native drummer Pheeroan akLaff. The group’s multicultural conversations were captured on the 2011 release Dark Lady of the Sonnets (TUM), the title track of which is Smith’s ode to Billie Holiday. “Billie Holiday’s singing voice is the sound I love the most,” he wrote in the album notes. Adding an ancient Chinese stringed instrument to the mix argues for the universality of the blues, as Min’s distinctly Asian tonalities may sound exotic to Western ears, but communicate plainly. Such is the case on “Zulu Water Festival,” our selection, in which Smith and Min sound like a quarreling couple, talking in turns. AkLaff’s sensitive drumming serves as a calming voice of reason, whispering on cymbals, gently remonstrating with his bass drum. And while Smith’s horn becomes brash and boisterous, Min and akLaff are hardly overwhelmed or subsumed, their voices equally important to the interchange. The song was titled for an image Smith dreamed up, he writes in the album notes, of a vast and placid lake surrounded by dark plains, on the shore of which 60,000 Zulu warriors gather to dance, “moving with the most graceful and perfect images upon the water’s surface … just as the morning sun is coming up — breaking open the daylight.”

Purchase Album:

The Authoritative Voice in Jazz