Wadada Leo Smith's Mbira - Dark Lady of the Sonnets (2012)


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Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Wadada Leo Smith, who celebrated his 70th birthday just last month, is as productive as he's ever been, and I'm getting nearly exhausted just keeping up covering all his new releases. Lately, he's headed up three active bands: The Golden Quartet, Organic and the Silver Orchestra. Now's there's a fourth one: Wadada Leo Smith's Mbira.

“Mbira" is an African thumb piano, the primary instrument used by the Shona people of Zimbabwe. But there's no thumb piano in this ensemble. There is, however, a pipa, a sort of Chinese lute, and it's played by one of the world's premier pipa players in Min Xiao-Fen. Min is not one to be content playing merely traditional Chinese music with a traditional Chinese instrument, and her flair for modern creative and improvised music has brought her appearances on recordings with John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Randy Weston, and an Icelandic pop superstar by the name of Björk. Thus, it might have been destiny that she'd join musical forces with Smith. Pheeroan akLaff, Smith's drummer from Organic, completes this most uncommon trio.

Consisting of only five original compositions, all by Smith, they're not so much songs as they are articulations, and the mutuality between the three is where all the action is occurring. Min even sings some lyrics that Smith had written for the title cut and sung in a drawn out manner, effectively adding a fourth instrument that blends in with the contemplative vibe of the band. Most songs, like this one, progress through extended phases of calm and release, and the “release" parts are a little like Coltrane's Interstellar Space with Rashied Ali, with Min's sometimes hyperactive pipa thrown in the mix. Maybe that's why I enjoy “Blues:Cosmic Beauty" the most of these tracks, since it's the most energetic, and akLaff is at his best. Smith's role is for the most part more subdued than normal; he's picking and choosing his spots more carefully and largely as a result, there's a lot of barren space in the overall sound. All of which makes Dark Lady Of The Sonnets an intriguing date with some truly original ideas, but demands more patience from the listener than usual from the ever-exploring, probing Wadada Leo Smith.

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