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Album Review

The four pieces that make up Wadada Leo Smith's Lake Biwa were composed between 2000 and 2004. They appear here for the first time. The musicians who perform these pieces include John Zorn; drummers Susie Ibarra, Gerald Cleaver, and Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng; pianists Craig Taborn, Jamie Saft, Anthony Coleman, and Yuko Fujiama; bassists John Lindberg and Wes Brown; violinist Jennifer Choi; cellist Erik Friedlander; guitarist Marc Ribot; and tuba player Marcus Rojas. This is quite a lineup, to say the least. Smith has been composing with his originally conceived and developed Ankhrasmation system of notation since the early '70s. The subdued title track is ethereal in places, yet utterly grounded by its sense of time and color. Smith's trumpet enters at midpoint and begins to stir the players to improvisation without ever losing sight of the melody and harmony in the piece. The longest work here is "Sanai's Enclosed Garden of the Truth." Smith uses spacious intervals to meticulously enter the theme, breaking it down a bit at a time as improvisers enter the fray. Zorn's solo here is exceptional; he rides along Friedlander's cello as the piano anchors the piece harmonically until it's time to solo, and then the burden of structure is laid at the feet of the strong players. Choi's violin and Friedlander's cello carry it out in counterpoint against the drums and piano. "Diamondback Serpent in a House Full of Water and Still Rising" is introduced by the piano. A theme is played, considered, and recounted with fewer notes, and then disintegrates as the ensemble enters and creates tension that eventually explodes. The final work here, "Africana World," employs long tonal drones and skittering movement on the part of the strings, and Smith carries the motion of the piece forward when the rest of the ensemble enters, introduced by the staccato repetitive movement of Cleaver's drums. In sum, Lake Biwa is a delight, and is full of invention. The players here perform the work's written and improvised sections with a determined sense of attack that also includes warmth, humor, and the desire for collective discovery. Smith has been on a tear for the past 15 years. Let's hope it continues.


Born: 18 December 1941 in Leland, MS

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

A consistently adventurous trumpeter who has stuck to playing avant-garde jazz and classical music throughout his career, Leo Smith's dry, introverted style (which makes extensive use of space) is a strong contrast to the more jubilant flights of Lester Bowie. Smith originally played drums, mellophone, and French horn before settling on trumpet. He has also created a systemic musical language he calls Ankhrasmation, which has proved to be significant in his development as an artist and as an educator....
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Lake Biwa, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith
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