Review: Wadada Leo Smith in London

In two nights at Café Oto in north London the American trumpeter stretched out in the company of four varied local ensembles featuring players such as John Russell, Steve Noble, Mark Sanders and Orphy Robinson. Report by Simon Adams

Wadada Leo SmithFor his two-night residency at London’s Café Oto over the August Bank Holiday weekend, Wadada Leo Smith chose to play with four different groups of musicians. He is a rare visitor to our shores, so this was a great chance to see him live in varying contexts.

His first set on Sunday evening was the most experimental. Guitarists John Coxon plucked his instrument flat on his lap while John Russell played in more orthodox fashion, his lines often taking on a Spanish tinge. Their work was often delicate and tentative, as if gently exploring boundaries, eliciting from Wadada plaintive wafts of sound. At times, the dialogue between guitarists and trumpeter was uneasy, as if Wadada was unsure of the platform he stood on, but as the three gradually became more forceful, Wadada grew increasingly confident in his surroundings. It was adventurous music, a taste of what was to come.

In the second set, the two guitarists went electric, and were supported by John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. Over a big wash of electricity and hard-hitting drumming, Wadada produced arching screeds of notes that soared and dipped in glorious fashion. In places, the music opened out in free-flowing energy, elsewhere it grew congested and knotted, veering dramatically in and out of ruminative pauses. Throughout, Wadada exhibited a toughness flavoured with a sweet humanity. A great end to a great first night.

Monday’s first set stood out head and shoulders from the rest. A brass quartet of Wadada, trumpeters Ian Smith and Byron Wallen and trombonist Gail Brand, supported by the electronics of John Coxon, produced music of poise and consideration. The three trumpeters often pirouetted round each other, Wadada’s muted notes answered by Wallen’s plunged growls and Smith’s breathy rasps. Coxon’s electronics (I assume this was the source, as I was unable to see across the crowded stage) added atmospherics, as did his mouth piano, accordion-like in effect. Unlike the other sets, Wadada restricted himself to plaintive, quiet notes, all the more effective for their intensity.

To end proceedings, a percussion ensemble of drummers Charles Hayward and Steve Noble, alongside Orphy Robinson on vibes, produced sparks. Hayward and Noble set up a barrage of propulsive drumming, Noble introducing some small percussion to vary his already considerable tonal range. The two were telepathic in time, constantly altering drum patterns and sounds while consistently driving the music onwards. Wadada responded with frothing, ebullient lines that floated beautifully on. At times his trumpet was almost vocal in delivery, at others more abstract.  Robinson’s vibes were often overpowered in these surroundings, a pity as his contributions were fascinating in their often oblique delivery. When he forced his way to the front, he was superb. This was a tumultuous set, and a fine way to walk out into the night. Both Monday’s sets were recorded by the BBC for broadcast on Radio 3’s Jazz on 3 on 29 October. Do please check them out.

Photo of Wadada Leo Smith by Scott Groller for Cuneiform Records

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