"There´s nothing like the Great Lakes," mused Wadada Leo Smith in August 2012, while on a plane from Austria to America following a performance with Muhal Richard Abrams´ Experimental Band. "Why don´t I compose a piece for the most fascinating, the most powerful, the most life-sustaining, the largest body of fresh water in the world?"
As he was composing, Henry Threadgill reminded him that Oliver Lake is also a Great Lake. Between the province of Ontario in Canada and six states of the United States lie four of the Great Lakes: Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario; the fifth Great Lake, Lake Michigan, is a long finger into the Midwestern United States. This chain of huge lakes has 21 percent of the world´s fresh water. In Smith´s grand suite, there is also the comparatively small Lake St. Clair, located in the passage between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, which has petitioned to become a sixth Great Lake; this, Smith suggests, can also be Lake Oliver Lake.
Three musicians in this quartet were born and spent their youths in cities near the Great Lakes, Henry Threadgill and JackDeJohnette in Chicago and John Lindberg in the greater Detroit area, whereas Wadada Leo Smith himself lived in Chicago near the beaches and harbors of Lake Michigan for several personally crucial years in the late 1960s. The Great Lakes they knew still bustle with shipping, fishing, sporting. There´s pollution, too - two of North America´s five largest cities are on the shores, as are six other major league cities, smaller cities and various industries. On the wide shorelines where cities and industry are not, vacation sites, forests, rugged lands and scenic areas are found. Long before the Great Lakes Quartet and us, the lakes were scenes of war - among Native American, Colonial, British and French forces; and between Iroquois and Algonquin-speaking peoples. For centuries before Europeans arrived, the Great Lakes were home as well as the route of commerce and communications between eastern and western peoples. And for a hundred millenia before life appeared, a vast glacier carved the lakes into the ground.
Yet, The Great Lakes Suites represent by no means program music or impressionism; there´s no portrayal of calm or stormy waters, of sailboats or islands, of ice or shipwrecks. The analogue is not Claude Debussy´s La Mer but rather much closer to the pure, direct beauty of his 1915 flute-viola-harp Sonata. In Wadada Leo Smith´s work, too, only the music matters; there are no external associations. True, the artist meditates on this world´s Great Lakes. What we hear, then, are beauty and purity from another world, Smith´s world. It´s a world with its own forms and bold sound colors and without the surface tensions of so much of today´s improvised music.
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