Deerhoof & Wadada Leo Smith ‘To Be Surrounded By Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough’ (Joyful Noise Recordings) 4/5

The idiosyncratic, near-legendary, experimental indie conglomeration Deerhoof have worked quickly to get this album out in support of Black Lives Matter (to whom the profits go). The album consists of previously unissued live material including five tracks with avant-garde trumpeter and political activist Wadada Leo Smith, recorded at New York City’s Winter Jazzfest at Le Poisson Rouge (which the jazzers amongst you will remember as the Village Gate), back in the previous reality that was 2018. That should be enough, really. An important, vital, cause, and musicians who in their own ways reject the orthodoxy, political and musical.

Smith has been outspoken in the current crisis which, as a member of the AACM collective, he’s been doing so long before the latest outbreak of violent oppression. As he says: “Since in today’s world, true democracy is not practised anywhere on the planet, Human Rights is a colossal type of event for anyone to realize, and it’s hard to do. But it must be done and I believe it can be achieved. What makes it so hard is that true democratic principles demand that all human beings respect the rights of others and that we develop the capacity to share the wealth, the power and the earth and the sky together, with the condition that we collectively work to build a peaceful world. For all of us!”

The title of the album, overtly political and supporting Smith’s statement, is taken from Walt Whitman’s early classic I Sing The Body Electric which asserted the democratic primacy of the body, whatever sex or skin colour:

“Within there runs blood, / The same old blood! The same red-running blood!”

As to the music, Deerhoof fans will enjoy the band’s tracks which continue on from the earlier live album Fever 121614 in their combination of Sonic Youth style noise rock and lyrical interludes. The interest, for me at least, arrives with the introduction of Wadada Leo Smith – how will the band integrate his jazzy/improv lines into the rock schtick? Well, in two ways. On the first track of the live set, ‘Snoopy Waves’, for instance, they lay back, showing respect and cushioning Smith’s introspective trumpet line. Whereas on ‘Breakup Songs’, further into the set, they confront his free-blowing head-on, creating a fine racket. What’s unusual about Deerhoof and sets them apart from other rock groups who play with improvising guests is that they are adept at the changes of pace and to the listening necessary for this to work. As Greg Saunier says, “democracy and improvisation are linked”, so there’s a commonality in their musical philosophy from the start. There’s a pleasant tension; it’s not clear where the music will go next. This is particularly true in the duetting of Smith and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki (on ‘Mirror Monster’ or the central section of ‘Last Fad’).

In all an album that won’t please musical purists, perhaps, but will help bring tribes together and support one of the most important causes in our fast-fracturing reality.

Mike Gavin