Wadada Leo Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet: The Chicago Symphonies

The trumpeter salutes noble - and jazzy - Americans, in company with Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette and others


There are no hard and fast rules laid down as to how many musicians are required to play a symphony – think back to Don Cherry’s 1964 Symphony For Improvisers, in which he made do with seven performers – but Smith uses just four, their voices cleverly evoking the many Midwesterners – including the Art Ensemble, Earl Hines and southern blow-ins Louis Armstrong and Sun Ra as well as, on the fourth symphony, Illinois presidents Lincoln and Obama – who have made such strong contributions to American culture and society.

Three of the four symphonies are performed by Smith’s original Great Lakes Quartet, with saxophonist Jonathon Haffner replacing Henry Threadgill on the fourth. The music is expansive and open, a voluble Threadgill often inciting Smith into ecstasies of joy, Lindberg a deep and motoring presence throughout, DeJohnette the producer of a wide variety of different, contrasting, drum strokes.

A sense of poise and purpose distinguishes these four symphonies, the quartet often sounding much larger than its minimal numbers would imply. The references to the Midwesterners work very well, the tribute to Anthony Braxton that starts the Gold Symphony, and the contrasting and authentic tribute to Armstrong, Hines, Lil Hardin, and Baby Dodds both particularly fine. The presidential proceedings of the concluding Sapphire Symphony form a fine end to a powerful set of works.

CD1: Gold Symphony – No 1, Movements 1–5 (39.48)
CD2: Diamond Symphony – No 2, Movements 1–4 (36.38)
CD3: Pearl Symphony – No 3, Movements 1–5 (38.45)
CD4: Sapphire Symphony – No 4: The Presidents And Their Vision For America, Movements 1–5 (49.13)

CD1–3: Smith (t, flh); Henry Threadgill (as, f, bf); John Lindberg (b); Jack DeJohnette (d). NYC, 29–30 March 2015.
CD4: Smith (t); Jonathon Haffner (as, ss); Lindberg (b); DeJohnette (d). Catskills, New York State, 1 June 2018.
TUM Box 004