Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith – review

Cafe Oto, London

As the genial, dreadlocked Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, 70, wandered around Cafe Oto as if he'd just dropped in to see what was happening, it was amazing to think that this was the same man who has composed a four-and-a-half hour jazz-classical epic inspired by America's civil rights struggles, recently released as a four-disc set. But the Mississippi-born Smith is a man of many faces – ethnomusicologist, Rastafarian reggae fan, inventor of his own musical notation and possessor of childhood memories in which BB King used to play at the family home. When he plays, he draws from a very deep well.

The first half of Smith's Monday set – the second in a short residency of improvised collaboration with London musicians – was mostly a slow-moving, delicate group affair, for which he was joined by trumpeters Byron Wallen and Ian Smith, trombonist Gail Brand and John Coxon on melodica. The second half, by contrast, featured a thunderous percussion display by drummers Charles Hayward and Steve Noble, with Orphy Robinson on a bugged vibraphone.

Brass was dominant in the first set. The music swelled from squeezebox-like melodica tones with deep, wide-spaced electronic booms beneath, through fast-fluttering trumpet figures and rounded trombone purrs from the locals, as the star sketched elegant motifs overtop. A muted-horn passage ushered in what felt like a slightly premature close on the leader's quietly dramatic puffs of air.

In the second half, the flat-out inventiveness of Hayward, Noble and Robinson was so sustained that Smith left them to their own devices for long stretches, or played echoing electric-trumpet notes over bone-crunching funk grooves that eddied and tugged like stormy water. Robinson sometimes imparted brief harmonies with deep vibes chords; Noble made twanging jaws-harp noises with the edge of a small cymbal; and episodes of almost laid-back shuffling periodically decelerated the generally hell-driving momentum. Smith dictated very little to any of his partners, but his presence was vivid in every sound and space.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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