Silence Bigger Than a Table

Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk

an album by Wadada Leo Smith
TUM Records, $19.98
Michael Jackson
Wadada Leo Smith at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 2016

Some artists start out with a bang, others with barely a whisper. The trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith, one of the most influential figures of the postwar black musical avant-garde, could not have begun his career more quietly. In 1972, Smith, then a thirty-one-year-old musician living in New Haven, released a solo album called Creative Music—I, on which, besides trumpet, he played flugelhorn, wooden flute, harmonica, hand zithers, and an assortment of percussion instruments set up on steel poles: bells, gongs, xylophones, cymbals, whistles, aluminum pot drums, metal plates. And for long periods of time, Smith did not play at all. Instead, he allowed silence to fill the space of his music.

Not many people heard Creative Music—I when it first appeared, but its contemplative radicalism was not lost on those who did. Smith was returning to the foundations of music: sound and silence, articulation and breath. While he drew inspiration from the free jazz revolution that had begun more than a decade earlier, his own sensibility could not have been further from the style of free jazz known as “energy” or “fire” music. Loud, intense, often frenetic, fire music suggested a primal scream repressed for too long. The meanings of the scream were spelled out by the album titles of the period: political (Jackie McLean’s Let Freedom Ring), erotic (Alan Shorter’s Orgasm), sacred (Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity), cosmic (John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space). For much of the 1960s, it was contagious. Even Miles Davis, the great poet of space and stillness, who claimed to disdain the cacophony of free jazz, ended up embracing the noise, playing fierce, jabbing notes against roiling backdrops of electric guitars on albums like Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson.

A quiet fire burned in Smith’s music, but more often it suggested water and wind. Some of his titles resembled haikus: the first track on Creative Music—I was titled “Nine (9) Stones on a Mountain.” While most free jazz channeled the coiled energies of the great northern cities, Smith evoked the vast rural landscapes of the Mississippi Delta where he had grown up. Formally, his music was more radical than fire music, less encumbered by traditional song forms. But his was a pastoral modernism: spacious, serene, and in no hurry to reach its destination. Smith was not the only pastoral modernist to emerge from the ranks of the free jazz movement. His friend Marion Brown, an alto saxophonist who evoked memories of his rural Georgia childhood, and Don Cherry, a fellow trumpeter who created an imaginary folk music while wandering through North Africa and Turkey, also worked in this vein. But Smith would become its most committed exponent, and the most systematic: an “organic intellectual,” in the words of George Lewis, a trombonist and composer who has known him since the early…

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