Published Nov 22, 2016When a conceptual theme is applied to a musical work, regardless of genre, it puts a focus of intent that affects the composer and performers but the listener as well. It's worked very well for the Who (Tommy), Sonny Rollins (Freedom Suite), Diamanda Galas (Defixiones: Will and Testament) and many others.
Wadada Smith's focus on America's National Parks is an unusual one, but quite inspired in combining the considerations, both physical and political, that have informed humanity's corralling of nature.
Using composition and structured improvisation, as well as entirely improvised sections, Smith takes us on a bird's eye view of some of America's best-known officially sanctioned parks. In addition to those more obvious natural areas, he declares New Orleans as a cultural "park," musicologist and academic Eileen Jackson Southern a literary one and the length of the Mississippi a geographic one.
While there are a few identifiable grooves included, most of this work is reflective and spacious. There's more of the Western classical idiom in terms of palette and movement orientation than, say, the Afro-American soundscapes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago or John Carter.
Ensemble sections expand and contract into brilliant solos by his musicians, and while this will be a difficult listen for some, it contains some amazing moments. (Cuneiform)