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5 Expansive Wadada Leo Smith Recordings, Picked By Vijay Iyer

This Saturday, Nov. 20, Wadada Leo Smith brings his Golden Quartet to the Library of Congress' Whittall Pavilion in Washington, D.C. We asked bandmate and pianist Vijay Iyer, whose recent Solo album is very much worth your time, to list his favorite Smith recordings, which span more than 30 years. — Ed.

It's a great honor to present a handful of tracks by my hero and friend, the composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.

I first heard about Smith in the early 1990s, when I was starting to learn about the artists of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. I'd read an interview with Anthony Braxton in which he spoke of Smith in the most superlative terms imaginable. Because of this, I got my hands on a classic album by saxophonist Frank Lowe, The Flam (1975), featuring one Leo Smith. I put it on, eager to hear this genius of the trumpet. I was expecting some flashy post-Freddie Hubbard stylings, maybe — but instead I heard great silences, toneless columns of air, long tones that cut diagonally across the hubbub of the ensemble. I felt the same way I'd felt when I'd first heard Thelonious Monk eight years earlier: All I could do was ask, "Is this legal? Is this even music? Does he know something that no one else knows?"

The answer is yes. And it's a good feeling when music can lead you to the brink of your own understanding and still sound beautiful, true and ripe with significance.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

5 Expansive Wadada Leo Smith Recordings

Divine Love (Excerpt)

From 'Divine Love'

By Wadada Leo Smith

This is a lovely, delicately unfolding and mysterious suite. The particular way in which sound, space, gesture, composition and improvisation entwine on this piece provides an excellent exposition of Smith's creative language. Released on Manfred Eicher's famous label ECM, it's a testament to Smith's influence that the label's name was his idea -- an acronym for "Editions of Contemporary Music."

Divine Love is available from ECM Records.

Masimba/Strength to Overcome

From 'Dreams & Secrets'

By Thomas Mapfumo & Wadada Leo Smith

Dreams and Secrets is a beautiful collaboration with the legendary Zimbabwean singer-activist Thomas Mapfumo. The ability to address political struggles in music with grace and power is something the two artists have in common.  I love the way Smith's shimmering trumpet glides across the mbira textures.

Caravans of Winter and Summer (Excerpt)

From 'Luminous Axis'

By Wadada Leo Smith

An incredible duet with one of the doyennes of electronic music, laptop artist Ikue Mori. I believe this piece deals with Smith's Ankhrasmation system, which is a compositional language he developed using multidimensional visual symbols as stimuli for improvisation. The word combines the Egyptian word for "vital life force" ("Ankh"), the Amharic word for "head" or "father" ("Ras") and a universal word for mother: "Ma." Smith has said that Mori has dealt with the language of Ankhrasmation with more depth and rigor than anyone else with whom he's worked.

Rosa Parks (Excerpt)

From 'Tabligh'

By Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet (captured here in 2005 during its final performance with its previous drummer, powerhouse Ronald Shannon Jackson) has enjoyed many exciting developments in the last several years. Wadada's prolific compositional output for this ensemble has drawn particular inspiration from the history of the civil-rights struggle. "Rosa Parks" was the beginning of a massive cycle of civil-rights-themed works for the quartet, which could now fill four albums (and I hope they soon will). I feel immensely privileged to take part in this project.

South Central L.A. Kulture (Excerpt)

From 'Spiritual Dimensions'

By Wadada Leo Smith

Smith's devastating slabs of sound slide across electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson's oceanic drone, cellist Okkyung Lee's meticulous arco scribbles, and the hue and cry of four guitarists, including the leader's 12-year-old grandson. The majestic, roiling funk of this album is the sonic trace of bodies in action; the music of a multitude.

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