Wadada Leo Smith: The Great Lakes Suites


The often dazzling and awe-inspiring landmass and waterscape formations resulting from the natural world’s inexorable transformations occurring over vast timescales can prove artistically inspirational, especially for artists whose creative juices are set flowing by the considerable challenges characterizing such environments may offer. For trumpeter and singularly innovative composer Wadada Leo Smith, it is the life-giving waterscape of the five Great Lakes, an area long ago transformed by ice sheet retreat, that provided the inspiration for the intricate, dense, compelling and rapturous music encountered on this recent release.

Spread across two discs, “The Great Lakes Suites”, recorded in late-December 2012 and released in the latter half of 2014 on the Helsinki, Finland-based label Tum Records, is a 90-minute, grandly-conceived six-suite epic, the behavior, character and vitality of the lakes – Michigan, Ontario, Superior, Huron, Erie and the small Huron-Erie connector St. Clair (a tributary nod to saxophonist Oliver Lake) – being mesmerizingly implied in sound. Of the quartet’s players – Mr. Smith (trumpet), Henry Threadgill (alto sax, flute and bass flute), John Lindberg (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums), three, excepting the native Detroiter Lindberg, have common artistic roots in the fertile and fruitful soil of Chicago, IL and the then (1960s) burgeoning, now vaunted Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), with Threadgill and DeJohnette early members and Smith an early, close musical collaborator.

Ranging in length from just over nine to just under twenty-two minutes, the suites, embracing passages of disarming calm and serenity, sudden, brief cacophony, and extended, freely-flowing improvisational turbulence, mirror both the lake waters’ surface placidity and the underlying kinetic pulsations characteristic of this enormous interconnected ecosystem, but always with cogency, coherence and unified, determined purpose.

The captivating levels of individual performances, highlighted by Smith’s sometimes smeared, sometimes brazen trumpet, Threadgill’s pointed, penetrating alto and breathy, atmospheric flutes, Lindberg’s awe-inducing arco and pungent pizzicato, and DeJohnette’s dramatic, dynamic and differentiated drumming makes for nothing short of a transformative listening experience; an event not unusual, yet always something special, for admirer’s of Smith’s truly individualistic book of music amassed over a four-decades plus career.

The deluxe-style, three paneled, duel-gatefold, solidly-constructed package, adorned with modernist paintings and color personnel photos, includes an accompanying booklet containing music notes by Smith and John Litweiler, Wadada-written poetic tributes to the quartet and the individual players as well as artist biographies, is worthy of special mention.

Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet live at Jazzaldia in San Sebastián, Spain