Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

April 2023

Composer Wayne Shorter died on March 2 this year, at the age of 89. Along with the release of a massive, career-capping biography of fellow saxophone giant Sonny Rollins, this is a landmark—the symbolic end of a jazz era studded with remarkable iconoclasts. Miles. Monk. Trane. Wayne. Sonny. We all know their unique sounds; hearing them in our heads as soon as those single names pass the lips.

James Hale

One of the dangers of venerating artists like these, of course, is that there’s only so much room in anyone’s pantheon. Many more will be excluded than are welcomed in.

Too often excluded is a multifaceted artist with a singular name, ready-made for easy recall: Wadada.

Now 81, composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith initially chose the path of music education—teaching at CalArts for more than 20 years—rather than moving to New York City and building a recording and performance career, as so many of his peers did. As an educator who only occasionally released recordings on lesser-known labels, like John Zorn’s Tzadik Records, his work received considerably less attention than the careers of contemporaries like Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill.

Given Smith’s unusual and determined career path, it’s no surprise that he was one of the first musicians of his generation to start his own label—Kabell Records—more than 50 years ago. His latest project, Fire Illuminations (Kabell KB112), came to me as a 24-bit/96kHz WAV promo copy; it’s available as a download from Bandcamp. The 48-minute album features an electric nonet called Orange Wave Electric that has a few recognizable names: Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, and Lamar Smith on guitars; Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs, basses; Hardedge, electronics; Mauro Refosco, percussion; and Pheeroan akLaff on drums.

Fire Illuminations III

The sonic architecture of the new band is clearly related to some of Smith’s earlier units, but it also carries familiar echoes of Miles Davis’s mid-1970s band, which also featured three guitars, electronics, and a layered rhythm section.

While Smith acknowledges the superficial similarities of the lineup, he told me in a recent telephone interview that the compositions are different: “This music comes out of inspiration that I receive from the Creator. . . . It’s the same way in which God sent inspiration to the prophet Muhammad or the prophet Jesus, or whomever may have ever prophesied. They didn’t get it from a sunrise; they got it directly from the Creator. And that’s what happens with artists.”

Some of Smith’s earlier recordings with guitarist Henry Kaiser—in particular, Yo Miles! (Shanachie SHANCD 5046), a 1998 recording that also featured Cline—were more openly connected to Davis. Today, a more apt comparison might be akin to linking guitarist Derek Trucks to the late Duane Allman; while the source is obvious, the music has evolved. Smith’s point is clear, though; he takes inspiration directly from his Creator.

That evolution in Davis’s music in the early ’70s was cut short when his health faltered, and he stepped away from music for almost five years. Smith paints with some of the same colors, and while similarities beyond that are specious, the sonic links to the band Davis led on parts of the 1974 album Get Up with It (Columbia KG33236) are evident.


Enter—as if on cue—NAD’s captivating, new, limited-edition C 3050 LE amplifier ($1972, all prices in USD), designed to look like hi-fi past and perform like hi-fi present. As NAD announced, the C 3050 LE was “created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NAD’s founding in 1972 . . . [with] a gorgeous retro design featuring a satin walnut sleeve, dual VU meters, push-button controls, and NAD’s 1970s cursive branding.”

My SoundStage! colleague Dennis Burger wrote both a first-look “unboxing” feature and an extremely comprehensive review, and Diego Estan put the unit through its paces at the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, the results of which you can see here. Combined with my critical listening work, that’s a lot of attention for one limited-edition integrated amplifier that will reach no more than 2000 customers.


But believe me, this unit warrants the bandwidth we’ve given it. It handles music elegantly, sounds exceptional for its price, and has eye-catching looks that attract both people like me, who are old enough to remember the original, and one of my granddaughters, who shared space with the unit during her March break.

Despite the throwback design, a glance through the top grille reveals the state-of-the-art electronics inside, which provide a gamut of up-to-the-minute technology: BluOS connectivity; coaxial (RCA) and optical (TosLink) S/PDIF inputs; HDMI, USB-A, and ethernet inputs; Qualcomm aptX HD Bluetooth; and Dirac Live LE room correction. There are three pairs of RCA jacks on the back panel for analog inputs: for line in, MM phono cartridges, and to bypass the preamp section to use the C 3050 LE as a power amplifier.

For outputs, the C 3050 LE provides a pair of RCAs for an unbalanced preamp out, another RCA for an unbalanced sub, a 1/4″ headphone jack, and two pairs of speaker binding posts.


To match its old-school looks, the unit has maximum continuous output of 100Wpc into 8 ohms. Published frequency response is 20Hz–20kHz (±0.3dB), THD is rated at <0.03% (250mW–100W in 8 or 4 ohms), and SNR is >95dB.

Surprisingly, one feature missing from the C 3050 LE is a USB-B computer input, which I use daily on my own NAD D 3045 (the USB-A port is only for attaching an external drive). As a workaround, I connected an iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 to the C 3050 LE’s RCA line-in jacks to convert the signal from the Roon server on my 16″ MacBook Pro. After my auditioning, the C 3050 LE received Roon Ready certification, so now Roon subscribers can stream directly to the amplifier.

Fire Illuminations opens with a ruminative, 16-minute dedication to the late playwright and poet Ntozake Shange. Featuring the entire nonet, the piece has a deep, dark, and elegant theme—a slow processional that sparks numerous allusions as it winds its way across the imagination.


“Muhammad Ali’s Spiritual Horizon” follows, maintaining the languid pace behind rattling flows of percussion and a repeated theme filled with long tones. The boxer puts in another appearance, this time in the company of his greatest rival, in “Muhammad Ali and George Foreman Rumble in Zaire Africa.” Featuring a core quintet of Smith, Cline, Laswell, Gibbs, and akLaff, the piece is as raucous and brawling as you might expect, given its inspiration. Midway, the tempo settles into a more propulsive groove and Smith belies his age with a crackling, twisting solo filled with power and elegance.

Of particular interest is the album’s centerpiece; the latest in a number of compositions Smith has dedicated to the late drummer Tony Williams. Here, the eponymously named tribute features the entire nonet. There are echoes of Africa in the opening section, as Smith’s trumpet soars over hand percussion, before giving way to an elegant, ceremonial theme that’s spiked with shards of guitar. After Smith drops out, the theme grows darker and sludgier, before leaving Smith to play a gorgeous, elegiac solo over hand percussion and electronics.

Handcrafted in the studio by Smith, Fire Illuminations sounded deep and fulsome through the C 3050 LE and my Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers, but given the lineage of this NAD amp, it was only fitting to find a suitable vintage recording.

Get Up With It

Enter who else but Miles Davis? Like Smith’s “Tony Williams,” the piece I chose is a dedication—from Davis to legendary session keyboardist Billy Preston—that features a nonet exploring a rambling theme. As with Orange Wave Electric, Davis’s 1972 band was stacked with percussion, combining African, Indian, and Western instruments, and he shifted the sonic tapestry in ways few other jazz musicians had done previously.

My copy of Get Up with It is an original, and it holds some significance for me. It was the first album I reviewed, and having that review published in my university newspaper remains a career milestone. While I treasure the review, the album has, like me, a few miles on the clock, and given the rate at which Columbia produced albums at that time I’m sure the pressing is nothing special.

Despite one loud pop near the start of the track, the LP was in better shape than I had recalled, although the splashy top end struck me as an unwelcome throwback to a trend from the era of jazz-rock fusion. Thankfully, “Billy Preston” quickly shifts into a solidly funky groove befitting the song’s namesake, and bassist Michael Henderson settles on one of his signature patterns—so simple, yet so sweet. Davis is content to hold back until the song’s second half, and his contribution is relatively brief.

Get Up With It

If you’re a SoundStage! regular, I don’t need to mention the satisfaction of hearing an old, favorite LP; it’s like running into a friend you haven’t seen in years. And hey, your old friend is looking better than ever, thanks to those brand-new high-waisted bellbottoms. Looking old. Sounding like today.

. . . James Hale

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.