At the end of last year, the Helsinki-based TUM Records released an album of duo improvisations by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and bassist John Lindberg entitled Celestial Weather. This was also the title of the major (and central) work on the recording, a five-movement suite of a totally open and spontaneous improvisation. Smith and Lindberg had engaged in such free-form exercises during live performances; but this was the first time one had been captured on recording. Each of the players also contributed a composition for performance before and after the suite. The album began with Smith’s “Malachi Favors Maghostut - A Monarch of Creative Music,” consisting of two untitled parts played without interruption. Celestial Weather was then followed by Lindberg’s two-part (separated by a brief silence) “Feathers and Earth.” All of the tracks on the album were recorded at a single session in New York on June 16, 2012.
Smith was not a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was formed in Chicago in May of 1965; but he was one of its earliest active participants. Others included Favors (who would later add “Maghostut” to the end of his name and was a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago), Anthony Braxton, and Jack DeJohnette. For his part Lindberg played in Braxton’s quartet in the late seventies and early eighties and can be found on the 1983 and 1984 recordings that the quartet made on the Black Saint label.
Having had a few brushes of my own with free improvisation, I have no trouble wondering whether the title of Celestial Weather was assigned before or after the improvisations were recorded. The same could be said of each of the movements: “Cyclone,” “Hurricane,” “Icy Fog,” “Typhoon,” and “Tornado.” There is little sense that any of the music being played is particularly descriptive. However, it is entirely possible that the performers first came up with those titles and then used them as points of departure for their spontaneous improvisations. Certainly, the serious listener is not encouraged to seek out “semantic descriptions” behind those improvisations. Rather, they are adventurous explorations in which each player explores new ways of approaching his respective instrument. What results amounts to an alternation among solos, simultaneous monologues, and “engaged dialogue.” Every now and then a familiar trope might emerge, but there is a strong sense that both players were intently focused on avoiding anything that the listener might take as familiar.
Indeed, that motive pretty much pervades the entire album. The result is that one does not really encounter anything that might be called a “beat” until the final section of “Feathers and Earth.” It is almost as if this still rather low-key approach to familiarity amounted to the rhetorical device that would give the entire album some sense of an ending. In all that precedes, it is not difficult for even the most well-intentioned listener to lose his/her way; and, for all we know, this is what the performers desired. All of those weather titles involve unsettling, if not downright destructive, conditions. Rather than assault the ear with bursts of energy that are easily recognized as “keys” for destructive nature, it is reasonable to assume that Smith and Lindberg committed themselves to a more subtle approach that connotes disorientation simply by undermining the listener’s sense of familiarity.
In all probability there are any number of music lovers that may be provoked, if not offended, by such a strategy. My guess is that Smith and Lindberg would respond to the objections of those music lovers by saying “No one is making you listen to this,” something that John Cage would say to his critics every now and then. Thus, those curious about listening to this album should first take the above descriptive text to heart as an effort to capture in words what the “terms” of music-making are in this album. The listener willing to accept those terms should have no trouble being engaged by these recorded performances and perhaps even pleased with the results!