The American trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is having something of a purple patch. He marked his 70th birthday with the release of Ten Freedom Summers, a civil rights-themed four-CD set that interlaced multi-genre jazz with contemporary chamber music. He performs regularly with his various electric, acoustic and chamber ensembles. And he thrives on multiple settings and through-improvised one-off encounters such as this guitar-themed night at Café Oto – brass and percussion ensembles were scheduled for the next evening.
The performance opened with acoustic guitarists John Coxon and John Russell somewhat feeling their way as spacious pings from one quivered expectantly over quiet bass-string harmonics from the other. Smith, a forceful, firm-lipped trumpeter, wisely let things settle before adding soft Harmon-muted tones to give focus and direction.
Smith is an electrifying performer who veers from confident microtonal runs and declamatory blasts to a pensive lyricism that conjures Miles Davis at his most seductive. And, even at gigs such as this, when relationships are forged in the moment, his improvised lines are strong in sustained atmosphere. Here he was helped by the unorthodox approach of Coxon, who, playing with his guitar upturned on his lap, used a bottleneck and mallet to conjure abstract percussive rattles, Delta moans and the warm, unsettling sound of a zither.
High points included forcefully sustained trumpet answered by cascades of metallic-sounding notes from Coxon’s guitar; octave drones supporting Smith’s muted lyricism; and regular bouts of high-energy scampering. The trio was slightly unbalanced – Russell somewhat sidelined – and three separate improvisations were a bit of a stretch.
The second set turned on the electricity and added the rampaging power of the UK’s best free-jazz rhythm section, John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. The newly formed quintet took off at a terrific lick, with Smith’s lip in fine form and Coxon’s fusillade of electronic beeps sustaining energy levels to breaking point. The music scattered into abstraction and then re-convened with purpose, fuelled by urgent fusion riffs or sporadic backbeat grooves. The second-guessing was striking and the balance and focus impressive, though unsustained at a second attempt.