Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's life-long creative exploration of sound has come to a new turn with this meeting with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and drummer Pheeroam akLaff. Yet with something new there is an extension of the old, as the internationally acclaimed musician's explorations have always been eclectic, from his early days in blues bands, army bands and seminal avant-guard ensembles. A composer since the age of 13, Smith still wears both hats of composer and improviser and brings his two band mates along with him in renditions of compositions designed specifically for this trio.
Mbira, the name of the group derived from the musical tradition of the Shona culture in Zimbabwe, takes up Smith's concept of "rhythm units" composition and in the title track, this is extended to "melodic units...connected in performance by the members of the ensemble," the extensive liner notes tell us.
Added to Smith's strong, distinct, clearly articulated trumpet, is the traditional Chinese pipa, a mandolin-like instrument played here by modern master Min Xiao-Fen, who has performed with orchestras in her native China as well others around the world (she has also been heard in several other settings, including with Bjork on at least one occasion). Xiao-Fen, who adds a supple and expressive alto voice to this project, is also known as a composer, combining traditional Chinese and avant-guard practices in both instrumental and vocal music.
The third member, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, brings a style that is perfectly suited to the "non-metrical" design of Smith's compositions. He keeps a flow of engaging ideas, but lays out for long stretches, as the music requires, so that the textures are surprisingly varied and modulating.
The five pieces were all composed for the session and recorded in 2007 in Finland but released just recently. The central work is the title track, a tribute to Billie Holiday inspired by a poem of the same name by Amiri Baraka. Here words penned by Smith himself are intriguingly intoned by Xiao-Fen. Equally noteworthy is the track dedicated to Smith's mother, "Sarah Bell Wallace," with its two-part lyrical segments. The three other compositions form a smooth segue through the session, which has an understated intensity, created by stark contrasts in texture, shifting rhythmic units, and unpredictable melodic structures.
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