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Wadada Leo Smith — String Quartets Nos. 1-12
(TUM Records BOX 005, 2022, 7CD)

by Jon Davis, Published 2022-09-23

String Quartets Nos. 1-12 Cover art

Wadada Leo Smith has been a very prolific musician and composer the last few years, though this seven CD set includes compositions that date back to 1980 and earlier (if you count early drafts of the pieces). Nearly every composer of note based in the European tradition has written for string quartets, and even many whose work stretches well outside that tradition have entered the fray. Smith, as an omnivorous musician whose work is not easily confined by established boundaries, has composed fifteen string quartets to date (the first twelve collected here), some of which involve the standard arrangement of two violins, a viola, and a cello augmented by other contributors. My executive summary (tl;dr) of this set is that anyone who enjoys modern music for string quartets — 20th Century and on — should find a lot to like here. If you’re looking for Beethoven, you might find yourself disoriented and confused. Some of Smith’s inspirations came from the work of Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, Dmitry Shostakovich, and Anton Webern in the Classical world, along with Ornette Coleman, John Lewis, and others from the jazz world. He lists many more from blues and popular music. This box set covers more than five hours worth of music, so I don’t have time to go into depth regarding each of the works. Some of the quartets consist of only a single movement, with the shortest clocking in a bit under 14 minutes, while others develop over multiple movements, with No. 11 featuring nine. At the heart of these recordings we find the RedKoral Quartet, who have worked with Smith before (see Rosa Parks: Pure Love). Shalini Vijayan (violin), Mona Tian (violin), Andrew McIntosh (viola), and Ashley Walters (cello) tackle this challenging music fearlessly, engaging in all manner of techniques beyond those required by the traditional string repertoire as well as conventional playing at a high level. Within the confines of a string quartet, there is no room for weak links, with every part exposed starkly, and the confidence exhibited here is outstanding. In No. 4 we get the first of several guest musicians, harpist Alison Bjorkendal — the fourth movement is actually a harp solo. No. 6 further stretches the definition of string quartet by bringing in four additional players: Lynn Vartan (percussion), Anthony Davis (piano), Lorenz Gamma (violin), and the composer on trumpet. Classical guitar is featured on No. 7 courtesy of Stuart Fox, and No. 9 includes Smith’s trumpet and vocalist Thomas Buckner, whose non-traditional singing adds to the air of disorientation in the piece. Adrianne Pope (violin) and Linnea Powell (viola) are also profiled in the booklet, though the credits do not specify how they contributed to the recordings. The majority of the music is resolutely modern, with lots of dissonance and chaotic interactions; there are, however, some moments that echo the blues or gospel music. One word that I would use to describe much of this music is “fierce.” The players approach their instruments more often with aggression than tenderness, and the audience is privy to moods of anguish and anger punctuated by moments of beauty. Many of the movements are labeled with the names of people, including musicians, religious leaders, civil rights leaders, and others; a couple are named for varieties of cacti; and others have more conceptual names like “At the Heart’s Core, Knowledge.” If Wadada Leo Smith has not cemented a name in the roster of major contemporary composers, this collection of string quartets should do the job. Coming from the world of jazz, he is no dilettante when it comes to “serious” composition, and these pieces deserve inclusion in the modern repertoire.

Filed under: New releases, 2022 releases

Related artist(s): Wadada Leo Smith

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