The Arabic female word Najwa – نجوى – can be translated as a passionate connection or as a secret counsel or conversation with god. The new album of American great trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith for the Finnish label TUM is a masterful, passionate work and a heartfelt tribute to spiritual musical guides that have shone throughout his artistic life – past masters of creative music, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Billie Holiday. All, according to Smith, «had a new vision of how the music could develop beyond the fixed chord progression». The composition «Najwa» was penned in remembrance of a love lost, but in this case not as a memorial tribute but as a life-affirming celebration and as a clear understanding of love between a man and a woman.
Smith assembled a unique, stellar ensemble for «Najwa» – four guitarists – Henry Kaiser, who has co-led with Smith before in the Yo Miles! Project, Brandon Ross, who has worked with Smith in the Organic ensemble («Heart’s Reflections», Cuneiform, 2011), Michael Gregory Jackson, who has worked with Smith since the seventies, and Lamar Smith, Smith’s grandson who has also played in the Organic ensemble, Bill Laswell on the electric bass in his first recording ever with Smith, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and percussionist Adam Rudolph.
Smith describes the first, extended, mini-suite tribute composition, «Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Sonic Hierographic Forms: A Resonance Change in the Millennium»: «Coleman’s music and his philosophical thinking are the most important influence I have encountered in life… His music had the sensibility to touch my heart and to liberate me to not judge my own music; and to have the courage to move inside my inspiration and discover what was there and to use it completely without fear». The four guitarists create a multi-layered, nuanced harmolodic rhythmic textures, Laswell deepens these rhythmic patterns with his liquid-sounding bass while akLaff and Rudolph anchor the propulsive commotion. Smith flies above all with his majestic, thoughtful playing.
The next, extended mini-suite, «Ohnedaruth John Coltrane: The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme» deepens even more the spiritual vein. Smith incorporated into this composition a long sustained adagio movement in the second movement of the piece that to represent his transformation from his early life into his spiritual life. This piece develops from a complex progression of harmonic ideas to a free texture full with funky, cosmicl outbursts. Smith plays here as if he was possessed by the powerful spirit and conviction of Coltrane himself.
The brief, emotional «Najwa» – «a love song or, perhaps more accurately, a tragic song for a love lost», as Smith describes it, serves as a meditative, atmospheric interlude. Smith’s muted trumpet and Laswell bass ambiance suggest the touching atmosphere.
The following, «Ronald Shannon Jackson: The Master of Symphonic Drumming and Multi-Sonic Rhythms, Inscriptions of a Rare Beauty» for the drummer of Smith’s Golden Quartet correspond with the harmolodic rhythmic ideas of Ornette Coleman, expressed in the opening piece. Smith’s composition places Laswell, akLaff and Rudolph in the center, enabling them to create a tough yet elastic, funky pulse, abstracted as an almost orchestral suite by smith and the four guitarists.
The last composition, «The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers», joins other Smith’s dedications to Billie Holiday who «could take any song and improve on the lyrics, add a word or reshape a word in the original lyrics without destroying its meaning». Here Smith trumpet sings beautifully like Holiday, capturing her clear, emotional delivery without sounding nostalgic.
«Najwa» is another brilliant, electrifying work by Smith who never stops expanding and refining his musical language and artistic vision.
Wadada Leo Smith (tp), Michael Gregory Jackson (g), Henry Kaiser (g), Brandon Ross (g), Lamar Smith (g), Bill Laswell (b), Pheeroan akLaff (dr), Adam Rudolph (perc)