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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/22/2010

In concert: Wadada Leo Smith at Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium

By Chris Richards

wadada leo smithOpen spaces are an integral part of Wadada Leo Smith's sound. (All photos by Josh Sisk/FTWP)

Mississippi-born jazz composer Wadada Leo Smith has mastered the art of omission, splicing his most dazzling phrases with dramatic pauses and mysterious silences. The 68-year-old's performance at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium on Saturday night was elegant, the signature stop-and-go nature of his playing feeling more meditative than herky-jerky. When Smith wasn't blowing clean, bright notes through his horn, he was providing space for his band to roam and space for his listeners to think.

Surrounded by the latest iteration of his Golden Quartet, Smith told the capacity crowd that the evening's selections were penned as ruminations on the civil rights movement, as well as 21st century "problems of wealth and problems of power." And while they may have been inspired by the grim realities of the American inequality, these largely improvised works felt blissful and otherworldly.

Smith composes his work using a notation system called Ankhrasmation - something he invented in the '70s to help strike a formal balance between structure and improvisation. His scores kept his Golden Quartet plenty busy during Saturday's two-set performance. Between virtuoso solo turns, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and keyboardist Vijay Iyer were busy flipping laminated pages on their music stands, watching carefully for Smith's every signal. A raised right hand or a dip in the knees meant that it was time for the entire band to dive into the proceedings.

wadada leo smith

But what about those solo turns? AkLaff's drumming could gracefully ascend from a chatter to a roar, as if he were merely rolling a volume knob on a stereo. Lindberg was a jovial bassist who would often play mockingbird to akLaff's rumble. And Iyer, a young jazz sensation in his own right, coaxed chiming chords from the library's Steinway and syrupy tones from his own Fender Rhodes keyboard.

During a spectacular piece titled "September 11, 2001," Iyer's sparkling Rhodes work was countered by Lindberg's liquid bass lines, which he squeezed through an old wah-wah pedal. All together, the quartet played with an elegance that transcended the chaos of that day.

Before an intermission, Smith explained that all of the evening's selections were culled from a hefty, 18-piece body of work. "It takes three days to perform," he explained cryptically, drawing confused giggles from the audience. "God willing, we're gonna perform it somewhere in this country more than once."

When the four returned from a 30-minute break, their approach was more syncopated, more workmanlike. Lindberg, akLaff and Iyer pushed toward abandon, but Smith would limit his playing to singular elastic notes or fitful little hiccups of sound. Again, his stinginess felt like generosity.

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By Chris Richards  | November 22, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags:  Wadada Leo Smith  
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