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.
Smith’s liner notes explain that this project coincided with a family trauma. His daughter Sarhanna was hit by a car and seriously injured while he was composing this music. His family dealt with the crisis by “practicing love, kindness and healing together.” Smith imagines Parks’ brave act as also arising, not from anger, but love. This music expresses its passion with surprising gentleness.
The problem is the songs, for which Smith wrote the free verse lyrics. His words are heartfelt but sometimes clichéd. (His art is music, not poetry.) The three vocalists draw out lines full of intervallic leaps with extraordinary slowness. Impact and intelligibility suffer. It takes Min Xiao-Fen 50 seconds to sing “This victory is the first on the highway of freedom.”
The best parts are the instrumental interludes between songs. In Smith’s writing for strings, motifs evolve so gradually that stasis is always a risk. This album requires listeners with patience and faith. But Smith is grasping for elusive emotion, and sometimes faith is rewarded when the lines of four stringed instruments, intersecting at wide angles, suddenly coalesce into strange, piercing forms of beauty. Such moments are infrequent, and it is puzzling that Smith makes so little use of the trumpet quartet.
Visionaries like Picasso and Smith dare to fail. Rosa Parks: Pure Love is an important, admirable failure.