Wadada Leo Smith — America’s Natural Parks (Cuneiform, 2016)
On KPFA radio yesterday afternoon, jazz/world DJ Art Sato started his show with a track from Fred Ho, that badass of the baritone saxophone. Ho was a political badass as well, and he would have been out in force this weekend, helping remind the world that the regime taking power in Washington D.C. is not supported by a majority of voters.
In that spirit, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) would seem like an appropriate CD to spin right now. It’s not a barn-burner like Ho’s big-band albums. But its scope, sometimes augmenting Smith’s Golden Quartet with a second drummer and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, reflects the unbounded ambitions and determination of the (still incomplete) civil rights movement. As I wrote previously, it makes you feel the weight of history.
Smith’s more recent album, America’s National Parks, would seem to pale in comparison. (It would be hard to reach farther than Ten Freedom Summers did.) But coincidentally, this was the weekend I was hoping to finish a writeup about the album, and hearing Fred Ho on the radio shifted my perspective.
The album is still a political statement, after all, and it could be seen as a voice of protest. As Smith writes, “My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.” Not everybody likes that idea, including, as of now, much of the executive branch of our own government.
Perhaps to emphasize what “common property” ought to mean, three of the six subjects on America’s National Parks aren’t literally national parks. The album opens with “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” and “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park.” The first is the birthplace of jazz, a place that should stand out in the American consciousness just as Yosemite does. Southern is a Harvard professor and musicologist who convinced the academic world that black music was a subject worthy of serious study.
America’s National Parks is not a quick listen. The pieces, written for Smith’s quartet (John Lindberg on bass, Anthony Davis on piano, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) plus cellist Ashley Walters, are expansive and gradual. I have to admit my attention wanders during some of the slowly unfolding themes.
The first half of “New Orleans,” for instance, consists of an odd-time bass riff covered by tickles of piano and cello and the cutting blare of Smith’s muted trumpet — a jam in slow motion. It’s only when Davis’ splashy piano enters, and the band kicks into a more jazz-oriented take on the same theme, that my ears perk up.
The tracks devoted to Yosemite and Yellowstone have the grand entrances you’d expect. “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” opens with a group improvisation full of big drama, evoking the glaciers in the title.
“Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872” opens with an ominous bass-piano octave and a slow, reverent trumpet line. When the pace picks up, Davis gets showcased again, dabbling against an easygoing bass line and some distant shooting-star squeaks from either cello or trumpet
The longest track, appropriately, is “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC.” (The titles related to formal national parks include the year the park was inducted. For the Mississippi, we’re reminded that the land doesn’t really belong to us that way.) Like the river, the piece takes its time, wandering around each bend and occasionally hitting a tumultuous span. At one point there’s a slow funk riff backing some exciting drumming by akLaff, followed by a forceful whirlpool of free improvisation.