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'Red Hill' takes listeners on a journey through a unique soundscape.

Music Review: Wadada Leo Smith, Jaime Saft, Joe Morris, Balazs Pandi – ‘Red Hill’

Much like avant-garde classical music, avant-garde jazz is not everyone’s cup of tea. It requires a special kind of sensibility both in the artist and in the audience. It is not easy to understand. It is not immediately accessible. It is not pretty. You don’t come away from it humming the melody. The music is more often than not heard as little more than noise. When Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring debuted in Paris in 1913, it famously caused a riot. Today, we wonder why. And while today’s avant-garde isn’t likely to cause a riot, it is still likely to generate a good deal of criticism—both attacking and defending.

Red Hill, the September RareNoise release from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith with Jamie Saft on piano and Fender Rhodes, Joe Morris on double bass and Balazs Pandi on drums, is just that kind of music. There are those who will love it for its abstract creativity and its willingness to move into new territory. There are those who will find it impossible to hear anything but noise. But since today’s noise might morph into tomorrow’s beauty, as it often does, it seems silly to simply dismiss it out of hand. Too often those of us who don’t like it, simply don’t understand it. We don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it.

That, I must confess, is me.Red Hill

Here’s what I know: Red Hill consists of six fully improvised studio tracks running 67 minutes. The members of the quartet play off each other without any previous discussion of where they were going or what they were doing. While they were each seemingly given the freedom to take the music in any direction, they no doubt saw themselves as working together, or working from each other—like any accomplished improviser accepting what your partners give and using it. The intention may be unclear, but it certainly is not meant to be jazz anarchy.

So from the initial sounds of Smith’s muted trumpet and Pandi’s symbols on the opening track, the album takes listeners on a journey through a unique soundscape, one never heard before, and except on this recording, never likely to be heard again, except on this album. There are moments of brilliance; there are moments of cacophony.

The disc opens with “Gneiss,” a piece quite lyrical in parts. “Janus Face” follows in a more explosive vein and “Agpaitic” is called a conversational romp. What such descriptions mean is debatable. Indeed, what the titles themselves indicate is up for grabs. The only thing one can say with assurance is that “Tragic Wisdom,” “Debts of Honor,” and “Arvedsonite” fill out the album.

One man’s art is another’s nightmare: ‘tis a puzzlement.

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