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Wadada Leo Smith: Old And New 'Dimensions'

With his wide leaps between long tones and a sometimes generous use of space, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith nods occasionally to 20th-century European concert music. But he's also one of the modern improvisers most grounded in African-American vernaculars; he's the stepson of Mississippi bluesman Alex Wallace, and he played for a spell in Little Milton's blues band. Smith's projects are all over the map, but often have this much in common with the blues: the byplay between a strong voice — his horn, in this case — and percussive strings. On 1979's newly reissued Spirit Catcher, those strings are three concert harps, played by the simpatico Emanuel sisters in such songs as "The Burning of Stones."

Smith abstracts from the blues: There are echoes of Japanese kotos and Gambian koras in those harps. But I can't think of any other music that sounds quite like that; Smith makes it all personal. On his other new reissue on the Nessa label, 1985's Procession of the Great Ancestry, he and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton play in a quartet plus guests. In two numbers, they're joined by Chicago blues guitarist Louis Myers. Smith puts down his trumpet to sing "Who Killed David Walker?" in the great tradition of mumbling Mississippi bluesmen.

In the 20-some years since then, Smith has expanded his audience by reviving electric Miles Davis music with guitarist Henry Kaiser. On half of the new Smith double-disc set, Spiritual Dimensions, he's surrounded by strings: His band Organic has two basses, a cello and a gaggle of electric guitarists, including Wilco's Nels Cline. The band can re-create Miles Davis' '70s funk with eerie fidelity, but it also puts its own spin on the idiom.

"Organic" features powerhouse drummer and longtime Smith ally Pheeroan akLaff, who also appears on the other half of Smith's Spiritual Dimensions, in his Golden Quintet with Vijay Iyer on piano and John Lindberg on bass. This band can evoke Davis, too, but the reggae beat is its own twist.

In most of these settings, Smith's trumpet functions as the calm eye of the storm. His sound is raw but lyrical, full of big gestures but intimate somehow. He's not the most technical player, but he's very expressive. In all that, Smith recalls the late Don Cherry. That trumpeter had a very different sound, but was also a musical nomad at home in all sorts of situations. When it comes to making music with the right ideals, Wadada Leo Smith couldn't be in better company.

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Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.