DON CHERRY’S ELECTRIC SONIC GARDEN (FOR DON CHERRY) [excerpt]
Wadada Leo Smith’s Organic
Cuneiform : 2011
WLS, trumpet; Casey Anderson, alto sax; Casey Butler, tenor sax; Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross, Josh Gerowitz, Lamar Smith, guitar; Stephanie Smith, violin; Angelica Sanchez, piano; John Lindberg, Skuli Sverrisson, bass; Pheeroan akLaff, drums; Mark Trayle, Charlie Burgin, laptop.
We’re pleased to dedicate this week to the exceptional music of Wadada Leo Smith. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Wadada is one of the great modern trumpet players. Stylistically, he forms a bridge between the lyricism of Miles Davis and the post-modern acrobatics of Lester Bowie. As a composer, his wide-ranging music seamlessly melds jazz with elements of blues, funk, modern classical, reggae, and traditional African and Asian music.
We’re kicking things off with an exclusive preview from Wadada’s latest opus, Heart’s Reflections. This is the second album from his sprawling Organic ensemble, which melds electric and acoustic instruments with computers. There’s a heavy accent on guitars and grooves, with a thick band sound powered by akLaff’s bluesy beat. In this segment, Wadada’s first solo of the record cuts across the rumbling polyphony, his electrified trumpet redolent of Miles’ wah-wah, well-timed bleats alternating with longer, astringently melodic lines. The whole thing is riff-tastic.
Heart’s Reflections is a double-disc set and one of his most ambitious recordings. It’s being issued by Cuneiform Records on May 17th and it’s got our vote as one of the year’s best releases. We highly recommend you pre-order a copy of the album here.
We spoke over the phone to Wadada about this terrific record. Here are some of the things you need to know about it:
Although Organic bears a superficial resemblance to the Yo Miles! band, which performed compositions from Miles Davis’s electric period, the two projects don’t share similar goals.
Wadada: “I don’t think Yo Miles! has any of the kind of abstractness that occurs in most of these pieces. Most of Yo Miles! was really theme and improvisation. Not a single piece in the eight CDs we put out had any computer activity in it, for example. Not a single one of them dealt with space in the same way this band does.
“This music, some of it has a beat but those beats cannot be looked in the same way as rock and roll or funk, because our goal is not funk. We’re still dealing with the abstractness. All the solos have a lot abstractness in them. Even the structure of the pieces.”
Special attention has gone into creating and selecting the beats and grooves.
“The beat quality, we want it to feel contemporary. [Drummer] Pheeroan akLaff and I talk about the character of the piece. Sometimes I’ll play the line for him on the trumpet. Sometimes he’ll give me something and I’ll correct it or add to it or take this or that. Once we get an idea of what it is, then he’s free to make the beat within the context of how he feels. When you look at the rhythm concept throughout the band, I meant for each player to find how they would respond to what we have in these beats.
“The beats are very characteristic to the piece and specific to whatever melody and structure the piece is going to have. The very first beat in [the suite] Heart’s Reflections, that’s a beat that the Sufis use to remember God; the beat that Pheeroan is playing is saying ‘Allah.’ That’s what the boom-boom means. The beat on ‘Don Cherry,’ that’s a shuffle beat from the Delta, it comes out of the Delta blues.”
There’s an especially deep connection between the beat used for “Leroy Jenkins’s Air Steps” and the title.
“The beat on ‘Leroy Jenkins’ has something to do with hip hop, but a much looser and freer hip hop beat. It came from the notion of air steps. The name comes from a documentary that was shown to me by Robert Farris Thompson, who’s a scholar in African culture. He showed me a dance in Ghana from some old women who had a secret society. They were dancing on this dusty clay. And as they danced, the dust came up around their ankles and it looked like they were stepping in the air as opposed to stepping on the earth. The beat that Pheeroan and I came up with represents that notion of dancing in the air. So ‘Leroy Jenkins’s Air Steps’ doesn’t mean he’s walking in the sky, it means he’s dancing on air.
“Essentially I wanted to celebrate Leroy in a way that showed something peculiar about him. For instance, he was a great walker. He and I went on many walks. He walked very fast and took very long steps. But the main thing I wanted to touch on Leroy Jenkins was my psychological remembrance of him and the energy he carried in life.”
The title of “Don Cherry’s Electric Sonic Garden” also has a layered meaning.
“Electric comes from a record he did that he had a lot of guitars in it. Sonic garden, of course means sound. A garden generally has several spaces – sometimes it has stones and rocks, sometimes trees and bushes and flowers, sometimes it has streams. But the architectural layout of the garden has it so that at any point you get a complete feeling about what that garden represents. Even though there may be five, six, or nine other locations in the garden that give you a different scenery view. But the meaning of the garden would be impacted in that same space that you’re in at any one time.
“I think Don Cherry was a Sufi master. And I’m suggesting that the compositions that he writes are really sonic gardens. Each of them will give you a different vantage point of how he thinks musically and philosophically and spiritually.”
The various members of the Organic band have worked together for many years. That strong rapport influenced the recording process for the new album.
“We put every piece together in the studio. No prior rehearsal. It’s a good band and if it wasn’t good, I would get rid of them. It costs a lot of money to rehearse. We recorded in New Haven and it was a very expensive project. When we went into the studio, we rehearsed the piece really well and once we got it together, we recorded it. Each piece went like that.
“With this band, you don’t have to spend 10 days rehearsing. They’re all great players, including my grandson. You can make the music right in the studio and it pops out precise. People don’t overplay or underplay. It’s all within the right economical musical categories.”
The sequencing of the album was also important. Heart’s Reflections is book-ended by two 20-minute plus pieces. In between is the title suite, which is divided into eleven parts.
“I wanted the two long pieces ['Don Cherry' and 'Leroy Jenkins'] at both ends. Those two pieces use everybody in the ensemble. The piece in between is ‘Heart’s Reflections’ because there are a lot of pieces for different instrumentation. They’re not all fully Organic. The very first piece is a duet, the next piece is a solo, the next piece is an ensemble of five. That whole suite varies in the size of the ensembles, up to one piece where there’s 11 players.”
“Basically I went into the studio and I went for it. I spent an extra day there to do it and an extra day mixing. The project went exactly as I wanted it to.”
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COMING ON WEDNESDAY:
An exclusive interview with Wadada Leo Smith about his 1979 big band project The Budding of A Rose, plus music from this rare album!