Warren Smith: Race Cards (2004)
On Race Cards, Warren Smith tells us how he sees the world right now. If the title sounds bombastic, relax: the bombs Smith tosses detonate with pleasing mellisonance. Mr. Smith’s recitative indictment of the powerful and their tactics is good-humored yet devastating. The Dixie Chicks said far less than this and were blacklisted. Mr. Smith has less to lose than they, and more to say.
The politics of Race Cards may be what you’d expect from this 70 year old survivor of Chicago’s South Side, but without bitterness, and suffused with cool intelligence and wry humor. “I was in the neighborhood where Emmett Till got lynched,” Smith claims, adding “Oh, I’m not angry. I’m too old to be angry.” Indeed, even as he scolds, Smith and company seem to have a fine time. There’s a strong connection to the African-American musical continuum of sub-cultural dissent with a healthy dose of levity. This is central to this music’s genius: from a position of near hopelessness, where anger or despair might triumph, acceptance and celebration transcends all, resulting in heartbreakingly beautiful art.
Mr. Smith’s connection to creative music, and his role in mainstream jazz and soul music’s history, are well documented, but he’s also absorbed the musical ideas of Harry Partch, John Cage, and other moderns. “It’s all in there,” he asserts, and Race Cards is the proof.
The disc opens with two spoken word pieces, the title track and the highly enjoyable “Tellievision,” which is a fine example of how poetry, uttered by the right human, can swing. Having aired his views on current events ( Race Cards fearlessly dates itself), Mr. Smith and his excellent sidemen speak through their instruments, handling Smith’s solidly crafted compositions with relaxed mastery. Andrew Lamb’s tenor tone is warm and lovely, recalling the best years of Dewey Redman. Mark Taylor, on French horn, is tautly controlled, catching fire as needed. Tom Abbs is soulful and strong on double bass, sounding as if he’d played this music for years.
Smith’s drumming is near perfection, never abusing leader status, yet reaching heights of expressiveness. His use of cymbals should be carefully studied by younger drummers. Smith can do a lot without resorting to the big boom of bass drum and floor tom. When he uses those, he has a master’s ability to finely calibrate them, heightening the effect. Mr. Smith invites you into his sound, and it is a pleasant visit.
This review originally appeared in AllAboutJazz-New York .