Title: America’s National Parks
Artist: Wadada Leo Smith
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: October 14, 2016
Wadada Leo Smith’s multi-movement suite, America’s National Parks, is a musical proposition for a more expansive and inclusive definition of who and what can carry the label as an American National Park. Spread out over six movements, Smith evenly divides his focus on pre-existing National Parks and sites and individuals that should be bestowed the designation of a national landmark. In this composition Smith melds “Ankhrasmation,” his self-designed graphic score notation with sections of composed and improvised music. Such an approach leads to thematic unity and cohesion within each of the movements while also providing ample room within each piece for the members of the Golden Quintet to shine. The addition of cellist Ashley Walters to the group for this recording provides Smith with a greater sonic palette and contributes to a soundscape and musical moments unheard before in his recordings. If there were one word to describe this recording, it would be sparse. The sparseness of the recording contributes to a sense of intimacy where one can envision each musician attentively listening to one another that in turn leads to moments throughout the piece of unique instrumental combinations and arrangements that emerge and grab the listener’s attention.
The three movements based upon Yellowstone, Sequioa/Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks are all remarkable for the sonic visualization of the openness and majesty of these parks. Moments of note in these three movements include the simple melody played by pianist Anthony Davis and Smith in the opening moments of the Yellowstone movement, the loose and enveloping soundscape produced by the quintet that complements Smith’s extended solos in the movement inspired by Sequioa/Kings Canyon National Park, and the cool, icy playing of Smith that mirrors the glaciers of Yosemite.
The three remaining movements, as noted earlier, take their cue from sites and individuals not formally within the National Park system. In “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718,” Smith proposes that the entire city of New Orleans, not just a specific location or a certain performance style, should be memorialized as a National treasure. Smith does not attempt to recreate the music of New Orleans per say, but rather alludes to the sounds of the city while never quoting them explicitly: from the movement’s opening with a bass riff similar to the chants of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribes, to Smith’s blunt attacks and trumpet flourishes reminiscent of ragtime and early jazz, to the moments where pianist Anthony Davis’s runs can be heard as a homage to circum-Caribbean styles and genres.
The second movement (“Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National park”) takes as its cue the work and legacy of musicologist Dr. Eileen Southern In addition to being the first black female tenured professor at Harvard, Dr. Southern’s scholarly work greatly contributed to our understanding of the history and development of African-American musical practices in the United States. In what can best be described as an abstract call and response, Smith and the Golden Quintet demonstrate how this central practice to African-American musical culture, when placed in the right hands, produces a musical moment that extends beyond the categories and genres placed upon Black music and musicians.
For the fourth movement, Smith turns his attention towards the murky waters of the Mississippi River. Smith does not celebrate how the waterway fits within the ethos, ecology, or history of the American nation, but rather points to the river’s dark history as a disposal site for black bodies. Smith accomplishes this through an episodic-like structure alternating with brief moments of silence. The musical interruptions mirror Smith’s idea that the disposed bodies float to the top and disrupt the flow of the river while also reminding us of the humanity of said bodies.
America’s National Parks offers a unique musical meditation on the idea of common property and memory and puts the full range of Smith and The Golden Quintet’s skills and talents on display. Alongside recent accolades, awards, and gallery retrospectives, this album serves as a superlative reminder that Smith is one of America’s most talented composers and performers active today.
Reviewed by Brian Lefresne