release date: 31.03.2023 via Kabell Records.
Legendary trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith debuts his new ensemble Orange Wave Electric with an exhilarating new digital album Fire Illuminations, available March 31, 2023 via Kabell Records. Joining Smith are an electric band with guitarists Nels Cline, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith; bassists Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs; electronic musician Hardedge; percussionist Mauro Refosco; and drummer Pheeroan akLaff.
“Wadada Leo Smith has played an outsize role in American experimental music for the last 50 years.” – Seth Colter Walls, New York Times
“In a half-century of recording, [Wadada Leo Smith] has never stopped exploring the parameters of the form and instrument.” – Karl Ackermann, All About Jazz
Throughout 2022, Wadada Leo Smith celebrated his 80th birthday with one of the most prolific and creative year’s worth of releases in his – and perhaps anybody’s – history to date. Lest anyone should imagine that this breathtaking run was in any way valedictory, the now 81-year-old Smith returns with his first of several planned releases for 2023. The exhilarating Fire Illuminations, due out March 31, 2023 on Smith’s own Kabell Records label, features his newly assembled ensemble Orange Wave Electric.
“Assembled” is the operative word in this case, as Smith recorded the album in a series of sessions and configurations, compiling the final product through extensive post-production. He had an embarrassment of riches to work with: Orange Wave Electric is an all-star electric band including guitarists Nels Cline, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith; bassists Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs; electronic musician Hardedge; percussionist Mauro Refosco; and drummer Pheeroan akLaff.
“Orange is such a vitalizing color,” Smith says in regard to the name of this brilliant new configuration. “It relates to the vitality of electricity that I’m working with in this ensemble.”
Smith shares history with many of these musicians; akLaff in particular has been a vital collaborator for more than four decades. Smith has recorded with Ross and Gibbs in the guise of their bold trio Harriet Tubman, while Laswell joined the trumpeter along with the late percussion master Milford Graves for 2021’s inspired Sacred Ceremonies. Both Cline, famous as a member of Wilco, and Lamar Smith have been members of Wadada’s Organic group. Only Refosco is a new acquaintance, though he’s long been an acclaimed percussionist best known for his work with David Byrne and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Ever innovative in his quest for new methods of composing, guiding, and creating improvised music, Smith crafted the five expansive compositions on Fire Illuminations in the studio from a series of recording dates conducted and edited over the course of nearly four years. He cites such precedents as the groundbreaking work of Jamaican reggae and dub innovator Lee “Scratch” Perry and Miles Davis classics like Bitches Brew and On the Corner.
“That’s why the studio is there,” Smith insists. “The studio is not just for capturing or sampling sounds, but it’s also an instrument which one can use to not just enhance but build a larger creation.”
The ensemble is utilized in various configurations throughout Fire Illuminations. The full group is present for the opening track, “Ntozake,” on which Smith’s reverberant trumpet and the coruscating guitar tones emerge from a loping, muscular groove and Hardedge’s sub-level sonics. The piece is named for the late playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, best known for her landmark Obie Award-winning 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Citing her powerful poetry and its confrontation of racial and feminist issues, Smith calls Shange “a hero to me.”
All nine musicians also converge on “Tony Williams,” the latest in a number of tributes to the pioneering drummer that Smith has conceived (including a duet with Laswell on Sacred Ceremonies). Smith calls Williams “one of the greatest, most gifted drummers ever. What makes him important is his ability to play multiple metrics, which he intertwined with rhythm. His contribution to the Miles Davis Quintet was so refreshing and creative. He was one of the only musicians that challenged that whole band. The drummer brings another kind of creative energy inside the ensemble that unlocks all of the doors towards inspiration.”
Smith dedicated two pieces to the famed boxer and activist Muhammad Ali. The first, “Muhammad Ali’s Spiritual Horizon,” features only Lamar Smith on guitar along with the roiling, percolating rhythm section, while “Muhammad Ali and George Foreman Rumble in Zaire Africa,” inspired by the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” where Ali won with his rope-a-dope technique, pares the band down to Wadada, Cline, Laswell, Gibbs and akLaff.
“Muhammad Ali demonstrated the greatest quality of humanity when he refused to fight a war that he didn’t believe in,” Smith says. “He lost everything because of that, but in the end, because he made that political statement, he gained everything back and much more. That’s a model that we can look to: if you make the right decision from your heart, the creator will always return that to you in a greater way. And the Rumble in Zaire shows something about his spirit and his understanding that it’s not the strongest, the most powerful, the wealthiest or the most influential person that controls the world. Strategy is what gets you across the finish line.”
The final piece, “Fire Illuminations Inside the Particles of Light,” was the most challenging to construct from its disparate pieces. It’s a constantly shifting and evolving piece, dense with layers that Smith’s clarion trumpet scythes through like a beacon. The composer relates it to the transformative nature of fire itself, and its foundational role in the development of human civilization. A monumental concept, no doubt, but if Smith’s music has revealed nothing else over the past half-century, it’s that he’s a thinker and creator on the grandest of scales.
photo: Dominik Huber
Wadada Leo Smith
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was part of the first generation of musicians to come out of Chicago‘s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and has established himself as one of the leading composers and performers of creative contemporary music. Since the early 1970s Smith has mostly led his own groups, including the ensembles New Dalta Akhri, N’Da Kulture, the Golden Quartet and Quintet, the Silver Orchestra, Organic, Mbira, the Great Lakes Quartet and Najwa. His epic tribute to the Civil Rights movement, Ten Freedom Summers, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013. From 2021-22, Smith celebrated his 80th birthday with a stunning series of releases on TUM Records: a set of solo trumpet music recorded in the beautiful natural acoustics of a medieval stone church on the Southern Coast of Finland; a meeting of three masters of creative music with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Milford Graves; The Emerald Duets, featuring trumpet-drum duos with Pheeroan akLaff, Andrew Cyrille, Han Bennink and Jack DeJohnette; a trio outing with DeJohnette and Vijay Iyer; a set of recordings of his Great Lakes Quartet featuring saxophonist Henry Threadgill; and the groundbreaking seven-volume collection String Quartets Nos. 1 – 12.
Wadada Leo Smith and Orange Wave Electric – Fire Illuminations
Kabell Records – KB112 – Recorded January 2019-2021
Release date March 31, 2023
Cover photo by Einar Falur Ingólfsson
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