He might have been 80 last December, but Wadada Leo Smith is enjoying a wonderfully creative period at the moment, ably supported by the Finnish TUM label, distinguished by its high production values and stand-out sleeve designs featuring works by Finnish abstract artists.
On A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday, Smith and Jack DeJohnette are joined by pianist Vijay Iyer in a bass-less trio. Iyer has worked with Smith for many years in the Golden Quartet, but this is the first time that he has ever played with DeJohnette.
Throughout, the music is sparse, thoughtful, and improvisatory, born out of a deep understanding and empathy between the three. DeJohnette introduces the title track with four minutes of gently explorative drum work before Smith’s clarion call introduces the trio into what becomes a haunting, increasingly powerful tribute, one of many Smith has composed for Holiday over the years.
Iyer’s own Deep Time No 1 samples the words of another modern icon, Malcom X, over which Smith adds a slow, quiet trumpet commentary of long-held notes aided by DeJohnette’s engaged drumming and Iyer’s luminous electric piano lines.
The lengthy AD Opera, dedicated to pianist Anthony Davis, a long-time collaborator of Smith’s, is an episodic piece of great variety, Smith’s trumpet both caressing and brusque as Iyer ups the ante with increasingly urgent eruptions.
Two fine pieces end the set, DeJohnette’s Song for World Forgiveness evolving from a gentle, hesitant start into something quite elegant and grand, while the collectively composed Rocket, put together in the studio, strides out in intense fashion.
Throughout this finely played set, there is a great sense of poise and place, the musicians aware of the impact of their contributions. Smith has produced some wondrous work in recent years, but this set is one of his best.
Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet; Deep Time No 1; The AD Opera: A Long Vision With Imagination, Creativity And Fire, A Dance Opera; Song For World Forgiveness; Rocket (57.42)
Smith (t); Vijay Iyer (p, elp, Hammond B-3 org, elec); Jack DeJohnette (d, pc). NYC, 22 November 2016.