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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.

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Vijay Iyer