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The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer by Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell

Strange timing, this. Almost 25 years after it was originally recorded comes this medium-length conversation between two titans of American improvised music. Fans of jazz’ farther out shores will need little introduction to either of the participants here. But despite their joint (and lazy) labeling as “outcats,” the initial highpoints of their careers – Smith’s sparse and subtle phrasing with the Smith-Braxton-Jenkins trio vs. Blackwell’s upbeat tapdancing underneath the classic Ornette Coleman quintet – don’t suggest obvious similarities. It is to their credit, and our benefit, that both men so successfully combined their approaches on the date heard here.

Apparently there was little preparation before the session (a radio broadcast in October 1986), and one can hear a certain pushing and pulling as they repeatedly reconfigure, attempting to adapt to each other’s comfort zones. “Seven Arrows in the Garden of Light” would fit in perfectly well with a standard AACM presentation of the time, Blackwell subduing his usual, perky two-beat snare accents into a rumbling bed of shifting tom rolls. “Sellassie I” meanders in very similar (and non-rasta) territory. On the opening melody of “Mto: The Celestial River,” however, Smith sounds positively New Orleansian, lilting and smearing his way around the gentle percussive stroll underneath. Throughout, in fact, the trumpeter sounds beefier, punchier and more aggressive than on many of his other recordings. Blackwell does well to draw him out in this way.

There is hardly a bad track on the record, though the two spoken word recitations are dated and unnecessary. The real treat is getting to hear these two great improvisers stretch out, listen, and react to one another in much cleaner sound than the average contemporary creative disc. Blackwell’s drums are mic’ed extraordinarily well, his toms, snares and cymbals well separated and resonant. It’s a fine (if sad) testament to exactly how much modern improv’s trap players have stolen from him. Smith, of course, can switch registers, tonalities or rhythm on a dime; here, however, he mostly stays within an appealing upbeat region, focusing on developing each melody through an extended, energetic workout. Unlike many sessions in similar duet settings, both Smith and Blackwell keep the proceedings logical and straightforward, allowing the energy of their approach and the empathy of their interaction to carry them forward. The results are both focused and invigorating.

There is no indication in the packaging if we can expect more previously unreleased material to surface from Smith’s vaults, but this unexpected date certainly makes one hungry for more. Like his bandmate in the Coleman quartet, Don Cherry, Blackwell is often overlooked and underpraised, and any chance we have to hear him in such glorious fidelity should be welcomed. A fine addition to Smith’s discography.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell
  • CD Title: The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2010
  • Record Label: Kabell
  • Rating: Four Stars
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