Leo Wadada Smith: String Quartets Nos 1–12 / The Emerald Duets

The trumpeter's 80th birthday is marked by a collection of string quartets with inspirations from Beethoven to BB King plus four drum duets


TUM Records concludes its celebration of Wadada Leo Smith’s 80th birthday with two more sumptuous box sets, one containing his 12 string quartets, the other a series of collaborations with four leading drummers. Four celebratory releases have already appeared, a total of 23 CDs, and a fine way to celebrate a landmark birthday.

Smith began composing the first of the 12 string quartets in 1965, completing the latest, No 11, in 2019 (it was begun in 1975!). Three more quartets have since been completed. All 12 are performed by the RedKoral Quartet, all students and teachers brought together by Smith during his tenure at CalArts from 1994–2013. A few select musicians join them on four of the quartets, with Smith himself appearing on just two quartets, Nos 6 and 8. I almost said “guesting” rather than “appearing”, for this music, while written by him, is not his showcase. Indeed, his performative absence concentrates the mind wonderfully, forcing the listener to concentrate on the compositions alone. Smith explains his intent thus: “The string quartet form and my ensembles have been the major vehicles through which I have experimented with musical composition and philosophical ideas about performance and score . . . My aspiration was to create a body of music that is expressive and that also explores the African-American experience in the United States of America.”

Predictably, Smith cites the influence of Beethoven, Bartok, Webern and Shostakovich in his sleeve notes, as well as the string compositions of Ornette Coleman. Less predictably, he namechecks such blues masters as BB King, Howlin’ Woolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, all of whom had a major influence on his writing for strings, both as composers and as electric guitarists. Through them, he has constructed a music that relies on non-traditional components and concepts that allows the performers to share and shape the flow and language of each piece. The resulting music is easily accessible.

A single, held violin note introduces the first quartet before the rest of the quartet joins in, performing a slow elegy to the first movement’s dedicatee, Ulysses Simpson Kay (1917-1995), an African American composer of mostly neoclassical works and, incidentally, the nephew of King Oliver. Three further movements honour other black composers. These are important people – George Theophilus Walker was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for music – and the music works both on its own terms but also as a homage to Smith’s compositional forebears.

The second quartet continues as the first, unhurried, precise and powerful. Much use is made of silence and space, of long, held notes in the higher registers, matched by pizzicato responses and resonant cello passages. One’s attention passes from instrument to instrument, in democratic fashion. Indeed, one of the many strengths of these works is that there is no dominant voice, no one instrument firmly in the lead. The development is thus conceptual rather than linear or hierarchical, and rarely expected, although always apt.

And so the quartets progress, the third more austere, the fourth, skittish and dynamic, distinguished by harpist Alison Bjorkedal’s solo interlude in the fourth movement. The fifth is edgy and in places intense, but to hear Smith’s trumpet alongside Anthony Davis’s piano on the sixth quartet still comes as a sonic shock, the sonorities of strings disrupted by percussive piano and declamatory trumpet. Needless to say, the two guests fit in perfectly, as does acoustic guitarist Stuart Fox on the next, quiet and slow quartet, and the improvising vocalist Thomas Buckner on the eighth quartet.

Three shortish and largely contemplative quartets Nos 8–10 – the 10th distinguished by Shalini Vijayan’s ecstatic lead violin – barely prepare one for the lengthy and hugely impressive 11th quartet, a nine-movement epic lasting 98.35 minutes and spread over two CDs. Intense, brooding, occasionally raw, and verging on the abstract and atonal, this demanding, beautiful music is string-quartet performance at its most vital.

As I slowly listened through this music I was struck by the differences between the measured, almost cautious, Smith the composer, as heard here, and the forceful, joyous, improvisatory Smith the live performer – the first a contemplative organiser of scored and precise sounds, the second an instant responder to musical events. But different, too, would be their two audiences, one more accepting of classical conventions, the other a crowd attuned to jazz. But such a divide would be a great shame, for this quartet music is as integral to Smith as any of his jazz pieces, and should be heard and judged as such, acknowledged for the great achievement this set of quartets really is.

In contrast to the precision of the quartets are the relaxed improvisations of the four drum duos. Smith already has form in this area, having recorded duos with some of the greatest jazz drummers, notably Ed Blackwell and Milford Graves. This new project started out with just a single recording with Han Bennink in 2014 and then expanded considerably.

To hear Smith’s open, melodic and endlessly inventive trumpet is always a delight, but what shines clearly throughout this set is how closely he hears his drummers, how attuned he is to their strengths and differences. Pheeroan akLaff surprised him the most for his musicality, for the creative mystery in his performance; his quietly propulsive drumming is mesmeric. Andrew Cyrille stands out, ever unhurried, unforced and sensitive, while, as sleeve-note writer Vijay Iyer remarks, Han Bennink delivers a high-energy encounter full of unpredictable turns and striking contrasts.

Jack DeJohnette gets two CDs to himself, initially playing piano against Smith’s soaring trumpet. Smith then takes over the piano and DeJohnette creates a rolling sea of polyphonic action on drums before the two play a piano–electric piano duet. Throughout their duo, and indeed throughout the whole set, a sense of drama predominates, a feeling for space and occasion and event. The pairing with DeJohnette is truly a glorious ending to what is an extraordinarily fine set of duets. How good it must be to be playing so well for your birthday celebrations!

String Quartets Nos 1–12:
CD1: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2 (47.47)
CD2: String Quartets Nos 3 & 4 (50.18)
CD3:String Quartets Nos 5, 6 & 7 (54.47)
CD4: String Quartets Nos 8, 9 & 10 (52:26)
CD5: String Quartet No 11: Movements 1–5 (54.50)
CD6: String Quartet No 11: Movements 6–9 (43.55)
CD7: String Quartet No 12 (20.33)

CDs 1–6: RedKoral Quartet: Shalini Vijayan, Mona Tian (vn); Andrew McIntosh (vla); Ashley Walters (clo). Plus, on No. 4: Alison Bjorkedal (hp); on No. 6: Lorenz Gamma (second vn); Smith (t); Andrew Davis (p); Lynn Vartan (pc); on No. 7: Stuart Fox (g); on No. 8: Smith (t); Thomas Buckner (v). CD7: RedKoral Quartet: McIntosh, Gamma, Linnea Powell, Adrianne Pope (vla). Quartets 1–10: Pasadena, California, 29 September, 1–2 October 2015. Quartets 11–12: Burbank, California, 10–­12 February 2020.
TUM Records TUM Box 005

The Emerald Duets:
CD1: Litanies, Prayers And Meditations (74.58)
CD2: Havana, Cuba (65.36)
CD3:Mysterious Sonic Fields (51.15)
CD4: Freedom Summer, The Legacy (53.18)
CD5: Paradise: The Garden And Fountains (37.45)

CD1: Smith (t, p); Pheeroan akLaff (d). NYC, 3–4 December 2019. CD2: Smith (t); Andrew Cyrille (d). NYC, 20–21 September 2019. CD3: Smith (t); Han Bennink (d, pc). Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 29 July 2014. CD4: Smith (t, p); Jack DeJohnette (d, p, elp). CD5: Smith (t); DeJohnette (d). NYC, 9–10 January 2020.
TUM Records Box 006