June 17, 2024

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CD review: Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Kaiser, Alex Varty – Pacifica Koral Reef 2022: Video, CD cover

With abstract jazz, Wadada Leo Smith writes eulogies. Since 2012’s rapturously received Ten Freedom Summers, his records have memorialized Civil Rights heroes, musical legends, and America’s threatened landscape, bolstering the trumpeter’s compositions with history.

The 80-year-old knows that what a country commemorates testifies to its character. But what it protects speaks louder: His monumental 2016 release America’s National Parks suggests expanding the safeguards of natural refuges to include havens for culture, such as New Orleans.

Smith’s latest, Pacifica Koral Reef, fits in with the scope of his past decade’s oeuvre, if not its sounds. He turns his horn to endangered coral reefs, which the U.S. and other countries have been sluggish to defend from climate change. While Smith’s a true conservationist, the thematic focus is reinforced by his two younger collaborators, inveterate improviser (and scientific diver) Henry Kaiser, and Canadian music journalist (and amateur diver) Alex Varty, who plays the guitar as though it’s his full-time job. Using a score Smith wrote in his own visual-musical dialect, Ankhrasmation, they provide a transformative 55-minute tour through acoustic drones and outboard distortion, sporadically awash in the sparse, Miles Davis-inspired phrasing that’s always been Smith’s bread and butter.

The record is a revelation for all three musicians. Varty, who’s previously played in alt-rock bands, shows himself to be a soulful, supple improviser of Indian raga, strumming unac​​companied for the album’s first 10 minutes. Kaiser, who has collaborated with luminaries from Terry Riley to Herbie Hancock, achieves a delicacy of effects and engineering that echoes David Torn, and Smith’s overdubs demonstrate his flair for gentle, almost ambient soundscapes. The unusual trio setup—two guitars and a trumpet—encourages us to forget what we know about genre. Is this jazz? Classical? Or—god forbid—“world music”? And what, exactly, is the difference? After all, avoiding labels and hierarchies is integral to the philosophy behind Smith’s score.

1. Pacifica Koral Reef 55:09

Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet
Henry Kaiser – guitar
Alex Varty – guitar

Pacifica Koral Reef | Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Kaiser, Alex Varty | 577 Records

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