I first heard this album a few months ago and sat in silence, astonished after that first listen-through. Guitarists Henry Kaiser and Alex Varty join with one of the all-timers, Wadada Leo Smith, on something that’s more than just a winding, spectral musical composition, but a window into the world of possibility and a rumination on how to build better. Bringing Smith’s score, written using his Ankhrasmation system, the trio forge new ground together and peer beyond the edges with a hopefulness and confidence, inviting listeners to open their minds and take this ride.
Pacifica Koral Reef opens with a centering, pointed calmness with Varty digging into contemplative spaces using an open-tuned acoustic guitar. There’s a reflective quality to Varty’s playing that completely draws me in as preparation moves to action and then it’s time to wade out into the rising waters. Staring straight into the teeth of the growing waves that open portals to a new dimension, Kaiser’s howling guitar, and Smith’s emotive trumpet arrangements alight the path and steel the nerves.
These stretches where Kaiser flits between interstellar shredding and surprising moments of cool lamentation are an emotional supernova spreading across Varty’s fractured aural architecture. Vast tonal cascades clear the decks for Smith to fill with a beckoning brightness. Smith turned 80 in 2021 and though this was recorded a few years prior, it’s incredible to hear the spark that still imbues all his playing. He is such a cosmic force for good. While the guitars snake down a blues-riddled staircase, Smith is punching holes in the rocky veil for sunlight to enter.
In the album liner notes, Varty writes, “Wadada likes to speak about how his heart, his system, and his music are all connected to the need to not only survive but thrive under injustice.” Pacifica Koral Reef is saturated with a sonic narrative that pushes listeners to find new ways of thinking about our world and what the next steps and centuries can be. It’s hard going. It’s heavy, but when Smith’s rugged brass-infused voice rises heavenward, it’s a call to follow and find changes.
Smith can coax a huge emotional range out of nothing. There’s a certain magic to it, but because he is such a skilled, talented player it feels as though everything is achievable. Hearing him in this context, weaving quixotic shapes between an ever-shifting angled guitar framework is moving and inspiring. Connected to the expanding possibilities the trio explores is an anchor of mortality, however. Time is for the living and it won’t last forever. In this closing section, the moments become singular proclamations on the complicated road ahead. Meditative guitar arrangements hold the foundational focus, though, and Smith utterly soars, determined to drive darkness into the dawn.