Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet The Year of the Elephant Review

Released 2003.  

BBC Review

Second album from AACM trumpet star Smith and his Golden Quartet (some thirty years in...

Peter Marsh 2002

Like many of his Chicagoan colleagues, Wadada Leo Smith's work has stretched way beyond 'jazz' to include compositions for string quartet, studies of ethnic musics and free improvisation. As a trumpeter and composer, he's been responsible for some pretty amazing (and sometimes undervalued) music, from his 70s work with Anthony Braxton to the spiritual classic Divine Love and his Yo! Miles project with guitarist Henry Kaiser, which paid homage to Miles Davis' electric period.

The Golden Quartet line up was a dream Smith had nurtured for some 30 years till their formation in 2000. The dreaded word 'supergroup' may be in order here; we have pianist Anthony Davis (whose association with Smith stretches back to the mid 70s and who's no mean composer himself), legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut, and the estimable Jack deJohnette (star drummer for Miles, Keith Jarrett and pretty much everyone else).

Smith, like Roscoe Mitchell, values space and the empathy shown by this band ensures that despite its all star nature, there's plenty of it. There's no free jazz scramble; instead the music has the coolly passionate feel of Miles's classic quintet in their late, just-going-electric mode. Think Filles de Kilimanjaro or Water Babies. Davis sprays ripples of Wurlitzer type electric piano over Favors and DeJohnette's warm, funk tingedswing or lays down plangent, rich chording on acoustic piano. His composer's ear on alert, Davis achieves a fruity collision of classical form and improv fire.

Smith is on incendiary form; his rich, burnished tone echoes the effortless weight and authority of Miles, particularly on the opening 'Al Madinah'. His swooning harmon muted tones on the sumptuous ballad 'Piru' are tender, fragile and majestic in equal measure, while his duet with Davis on the episodic,through-composed"Kangaroo's Hollow" is a technical tour de force. Ideas are tossed round with bewildering speed throughout.

Favors is a towering presence as always; equipped with a warm,honeyed tone on the bass,his stately lines alternately float over or lock with DeJohnette's shifting, airy patterns. The drummer is predictably brilliant, though the rhythmic shoehorning that dominates the closing "Miles Star in 3 Parts" seems stiff and unwieldy, snuffing out any heat generated by the players.Mostly though,this is exploratory, passionate jazzthat's made with love and skill by four singular talents; a supergroup in the truest sense of the word. Recommended.

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