Live: Wadada Leo Smith and his Golden Quartet
The spirit of Miles Davis was in the air at Barnsdall Gallery Theater on Saturday night. A genre deeply tied to its history, jazz is somewhat unique in that its players are inevitably linked to those who defined their given instrument’s sound. Take on the saxophone and John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins shadow your work. Master the piano and the names Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk are frequently invoked.
So while the Davis comparisons may have been unavoidable as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith took the stage with his Golden Quartet, the difference during two sprawling, invigorating sets was how expertly Smith and his charges not only recalled Davis at his most uncompromising but also built upon his legacy to the point where such comparisons soon lost meaning.
A fixture on the Southern California improvised music scene and a CalArts instructor since 1993, Smith’s current band, featuring rising star Vijay Iyer on piano, hints at his roots in Chicago’s groundbreaking Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians collective.
Not unlike that organization’s ever-exploring Art Ensemble of Chicago, Smith’s Golden Quartet and special guest Motoko Honda filled the night with sounds that nodded toward the group’s excellent 2009 album “Spiritual Dimensions” but were so dedicated to discovery they seldom felt tied to a preconceived path.
Performing for a crowd of scruffy young students and gray-bearded believers, a sunglasses-wearing Smith patrolled the stage like an exacting conductor, directing the music’s growth or facing down his collaborators to ensure the music was evolving to his liking.
Frequently filling the air with bright, long-sustaining notes in soaring arcs, Smith freely recalled Davis’ restless “Bitches Brew” period as he gestured to hard-hitting drummer Pheeroan AkLaff, alternately propelling the ensemble further toward the edge with a wave of his fingers or drawing the exploration to an abrupt close with a sweep of his arm.
Beginning the second set with a number of wardrobe changes that included Smith switching to a white jacket and Iyer changing from a loose dress shirt and jacket to a sharp red shirt and black tie, the shift in appearance also seemed to signal a shift in the night’s direction.
While the first set was a demanding and ever-evolving affair that at times captured the fiery, restless spirits of free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler or past Smith collaborator Anthony Braxton, the second felt more measured but no less adventurous. At times Iyer turned to the Fender Rhodes keyboard for washes of sound reminiscent of the dark, man-versus-machine textures of Radiohead or Aphex Twin.
Anchored by an electronics-fattened groove from upright bassist John Lindberg, the darkly funky “South Central K.A. Kulture” from “Spiritual Dimensions” was a head-bobbing highlight of the evening.
As each player took a solo around the song’s trance-like rhythm, including exhilarating turns on keyboard from both Iyer and Honda, Smith stepped away from his horn’s microphone to prowl the stage, coming close to the crowd at its edge to lean into a final, gorgeous solo free from amplification.
None was needed, everyone in the room heard exactly where he was coming from.