Smith & Lindberg’s Midwestern Tour Comes to Stunning Close in Milwaukee


Wadada Leo Smith (foreground) performs with John Lindberg at Woodland Pattern bookstore in Milwaukee on Oct. 30.

(Photo: Izzy Yellen)

On Oct. 30, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and bassist John Lindberg completed a Midwest tour to promote their 2015 album, Celestial Weather (TUM), bringing the trek to a close at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern, a nonprofit bookstore that regularly hosts a variety of avant-garde shows.

The acoustic duo took naturally to the intimate setting—both musicians were able to play their loudest and quietest, revealing subtleties in each dynamic and in every shade in between.

While the album is heavily steeped in improvisation, both musicians exhibited a strong knack for performing compositions, deftly blending spontaneous passages and through-composed sections into a unified whole.

Their live version of “Feathers And Earth,” the final track on the album, was a solid example of this melding. On the recording, a spiraling figure of interwoven parts dominates the song’s second half, and Smith and Lindberg used a variation of that figure—subtly warped and altered—during the live show.

“Feathers And Earth” also showcased the brilliance of each musician as a soloist, and featured extended moments where time seemed to stand still. Lindberg’s solo explored the extremities of extended technique—at some points engaging in tremolo picking with his bare hand, at other points bouncing up and down the range of his strings.

While his dexterous technique was the definitive aspect of Lindberg’s solo, his attention to texture was also impressive.

Smith’s solo differed stylistically, especially in terms of space and pacing. He peppered his time in the spotlight with silence, but those moments never felt stagnant. Each bout of silence transported Smith to his next idea, but each isolated expression was undeniably complete unto itself.

Though compelling in isolation, the musicians truly brought out the best in each other and created their most compelling music as a duo. In a soundscape based on a simple melody, the two played with drones and intervals, quilting together a warm set of harmonies. Smith’s trumpet sang through a Harmon mute, shimmering with thin overtones, contrasting to Lindberg’s bellowing ambient sounds.

The next tune charted a different approach, with each musician exploring vast sonic ranges with agility, each calling out to other with bold attacks. But inside all that apparent chaos was a clear sense of control. Neither Smith nor Lindberg missed a step, and both players were always ready to pounce with conviction. The piece ended suddenly, but the barrage of sounds left an afterglow of tension.

The final piece, a concise, stripped-down ballad, offered a mood of both cohesion and satisfying conclusion. Smith and Lindberg provided dissonant harmonies over a fluid, amorphous soundscape, and though the song only lasted a couple of minutes, it was the night’s most unified and expressive.

After the music was over, Smith talked to the audience for several minutes. He lightheartedly disagreed with a published review of the album, sharing his artistic views on it. He praised the audience’s reception to the concert, joking that if the enthusiastic appreciation had been any more intense, the two would have either cried or run away.

It is always a privilege to see musicians of extraordinary skill play together so creatively, but to pair it with an outward kindness and spirited aura such as theirs created a supreme listening experience.

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