Wadada Leo Smith's recorded long-form works in the first half of the 2010s have all been justifiably celebrated. From 2010's Ten Freedom Summers
to 2013's Occupy the World
and 2015's Great Lakes Suites
, his albums have evocatively and provocatively engaged their subjects in a deft musical language that investigates as well as illustrates. The six thematically and musically linked compositions of America's National Parks
were birthed by Smith's own research on the congressional passing of the Organic Act in 1916 that created the National Parks Service. Unlike filmmaker Ken Burns
' documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea
, Smith doesn't celebrate the majesty of nature here. His hook was the idea of the parks as ."..a collective notion about common property...where any American in history coming forward can see and have ownership…." His examination isn't always literal: While Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon are all represented by individual compositions, Smith goes further afield to include cultural, spiritual, historical, and symbolic sources as well: New Orleans, the Mississippi River (an historical "dumping ground for black bodies"), and the life of African-American musicologist, author, and founder of the journal The Black Perspective in Music
(to which Smith has contributed), Eileen Jackson Southern. (In the subtitle he refers to her as "A Literary National Park.") His Golden Quartet (pianist Anthony Davis
, drummer Pheeroan Aklaff
, and bassist John Lindberg) has been expanded to include cellist Ashley Walters
as another frontline player.
A seven-note riff from Lindberg introduces "New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1918" (the year it was founded as a French colony). While the bassist's pattern makes use of the blues, this is not an uptempo celebration of NOLA's musical heritage. Instead, it takes the myth of Buddy Bolden -- an unrecorded yet legendary jazz trumpet player -- as its muse. After the bass vamp, piano, drums, cello, and trumpet engage collectively and then take fine solo turns, African rhythms, jazz, and blues all wind through one another as a new music emerges from their sources. Where "Eileen Jackson Southern…" moves through tonal and timbral abstraction and color to gorgeous articulation, "Yellowstone..." moves from skeletal inquiry to pronounced form and dynamic interpolations of jazz, folk music (we're talking Native American), and Western classical music in multivalent conversation. "Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River ' A National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC" is the longest of these compositions. It offers the ensemble the greatest opportunity to collectively improvise, but conversely, it's also the most through composed. Each detailed idea, notional conflict, and felt emotion is examined and expressed. One needn't take in all 90 minutes of America's National Parks
at one go; it might work better, for some, to absorb slowly. Either way, it masterfully balances solo and group improvisation, chamber sounds, modern jazz, and avant composition.