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Wadada Leo Smith attempts to find mysticism in parks


Wadada Leo Smith, "America's National Parks" (Cuneiform, two discs).

These two discs are so epic and ambitious that they're almost comic.

Smith has been a venerable figure in the jazz vanguard for decades but his reputation now may never have been higher. This six movement suite on the eve of Smith's 75th birthday came from Smith's personal research into our national parks and also from Ken Burns' 12-hour documentary series "The National Parks."

His focus, he says, is "on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens: those who passed before, those who are here in the present and those who will come in the future."

Movements have names like "Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America--The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872" and "The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River--A National Memorial Park c.5000 B.C."

It is frankly, only in the latter of six movements that Smith achieves some of the mysticism and power he seems to be attempting. The insurmountable trouble here is that this music is for a quintet.

No matter how good some constituent members may be (pianist Anthony Davis, drummer Pherooan akLaff, Smith himself on trumpet), the size of this music's conception seems to demand a large and full jazz orchestra. Atonal things that lose focus in quintet form might have had power and even majesty scored for a major jazz orchestra.

The conception is big here but most of the music can't help seeming small.

2.5 stars (out of four)

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