It is too soon to declare Wadada Leo Smith the Picasso of jazz. Picasso sustained his creative powers and his prolific productivity into his nineties. Smith is only 77. But his recent output, most importantly on the TUM label of Finland, has been ambitious, voluminous, and diverse, and has made him a revered elder statesman of avant-garde jazz. His new album is a meditation on Rosa Parks, whose act of resistance in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
No living jazz musician organizes music like Smith, or sets up such counterintuitive relationships between composition and improvisation, or assembles ensembles with such unusual instrumentation. Rosa Parks: Pure Love is a through-composed “oratorio of seven songs” for string quartet, three vocalists, four trumpets, drums, and electronics.