The extraordinary late creative flowering of Wadada Leo Smith carries on. He turned 80 on December 18, 2021, but the outpouring of new albums, including multidisc sets, continues unabated. So do the diverse collaborations, tours, world premieres, lectures, residencies, workshops, and prizes.
Two Centuries is the debut recording of a trio with Qasim Naqvi on modular and Minimoog synthesizers and Andrew Cyrille on drums. The proliferation of electronic instruments has been a transformative development in jazz of the 21st century. Electronics can be a trap for the jazz musician, but Naqvi uses them here with taste and discretion, to serve the music. He composed all 11 tunes. His role is to provide the ever-evolving near-stillness, the wide canvases, upon which Smith paints. The third voice is Cyrille, two years older than Smith, also a distinguished elder statesman of the avant-garde. His drums might flare up anywhere in these open landscapes. Cyrille’s function is to introduce factors like chance and volatility into this mostly meditative music.
Naqvi’s bare, pure, mesmerizing melodies are starting points from which Smith, in a riveting trumpet tone, roams free. Naqvi wrote much of this music during the first waves of the pandemic. The shifting undercurrents generated by his synthesizers, and the deep plaintiveness of Smith’s cries, evoke the uncertainty and darkness of that unprecedented human period, which was also a time of social upheaval. It is moving to learn that the opening track, “For D.F.,” is for Darnella Frazier, the young woman who recorded the video of George Floyd’s murder. Smith’s crescendos are shattering. On other pieces, like “Spiritual Is 150” and “Wraith,” Smith deals in more nuanced messages. Each of his long calls is a compelling summons, spoken in the secret language of the soul.