Wadada Leo Smith / Amina Claudine Myers: Central Park’s Mosaics of Reservoir, Lake, Paths and Gardens Album Review

May 27, 2024 - Music

Central Park sits like a monster’s footprint in the middle of Manhattan, girdled with towers, lush and verdant but hard to mistake for the wilderness. Such an imposing work of infrastructure appeals to Wadada Leo Smith. The great AACM trumpeter and composer’s releases since 2012’s Ten Freedom Summers encompass an alternative map of America, lovingly sketching in its Great Lakes and National Parks while honoring its civil rights leaders, artistic geniuses, and the millions displaced and killed in its creation. Smith composed six of the seven pieces on Central Park’s Mosaics of Reservoir, Lake, Paths and Gardens, and he’s joined by pianist and AACM cohort Amina Claudine Myers, who completed the sessions with no prior rehearsal. Smith describes Central Park as his favorite park in the world, but from the first minor-key piano notes on “Conservatory Gardens,” it’s clear that Mosaics is about more than bucolic landscapes.

The tone is stately and almost elegiac throughout, as if a grand, seismic, and vaguely frightening event is taking place on a glacial timescale. Myers broods in the lower octaves, providing the bedrock through which Smith’s horn cuts like a river through the landscape—or like a path through a garden, or like the park itself through Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons. It’s a delight when her hands dance freely into the higher registers, as in the last minute of her splendid solo piano piece “When Was,” but she and Smith largely proceed at a deliberate pace. It could work as ambient music if Smith’s sharp tone did not so thoroughly dominate the mix; its first appearance on “Conservatory Gardens” after more than a minute of insinuating piano intervals from Myers comes as an abrupt shock on an initial listen.

Mosaics is as interested in the park’s human history as its natural beauty. One of the longest and most beautiful pieces on the relatively short record is “Albert Ayler, a meditation in light,” in which the spirit of the late free-jazz icon apparently inspired the loosest and most convivial interplay between the two. “Imagine, a mosaic for John Lennon” is (thankfully) not a rendition of “Imagine” but an extension of the album’s air of twinkling mystery. The spot near Central Park where Lennon died is a popular site of pilgrimage for Beatles fans; the album’s somber tone suggests an awareness of the millions of lives and deaths that make up New York’s past, the sheer density of human history one can feel in every square inch of the city.

In its exploration of a relatively small part of NYC as a microcosm of its complexities, Smith and Myers’ album is spiritual kin to Loren Connors’ stunning solo guitar albums Hell’s Kitchen Park and 9th Avenue, which channeled the vanishing Irish-American history of the gentrifying Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Like those albums, Mosaics is short, just 36 minutes, more than a quarter of them occupied by “Conservatory Gardens.” But it doesn’t feel small, even when compared to Smith’s almost improbably ambitious epics like the four-and-a-half-hour Pulitzer nominee Ten Freedom Summers. Its borders seem to extend beyond its confines, as if there’s a theoretical piece for every meadow and lake in Central Park and this is just a small leakage from a vast parallel universe rendered through music.

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Wadada Leo Smith & Amina Claudine Myers: Central Park’s Mosaics of Reservoir, Lake, Paths and Gardens

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