A similar paradox animates “Two Centuries,” an outstanding album that the composer Qasim Naqvi dropped back in the summertime, but whose spaciousness and equanimity feels most worthy of our attention right now. It’s the first collaboration between Naqvi and two of his mentors, percussionist Andrew Cyrille and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, veteran jazz heroes both.
Naqvi studied with Cyrille at the New School in the mid-’90s and with Smith at CalArts in 2006 — the album title is a nod to the centurial hump between enrollments. After his lessons with Smith, Naqvi was best known as the drummer from Dawn of Midi, a mesmerizing trio that approached polyrhythm with a thrilling, almost scientific tenacity. But in this three-piece, Naqvi plays modular and Minimoog synthesizers, machines he consistently uses to spill rich melodies into thin puddles.
Cyrille is eager to splash around in them, following his student’s timbral cues and making his drum kit flicker without ever pushing the clock. This ability — to stop time rather than keep it — has always felt like the great achievement of Cyrille’s drumming, and you can catch it most viscerally in “The Curve” as he brushes his snare during a final crescendo that evaporates into itself.
As for Smith, his mastery of negative space is in full effect. He makes his horn speak in beautifully smeared notes, then stands back, as if to contemplate the musical shapes he just left hanging in the air. On “For D.F.,” the album’s first and most elegant cut, his phrases take shape like awakening thoughts, while Naqvi’s synth drones coalesce into an intertwined gesture of support and respect.
“What I love about improvised music is that an artist is allowed to age with grace on their instrument,” Naqvi says in the album’s liner notes. “Their language evolves and distills over time into this essential sound. Andrew and Wadada have lived such long and creative lives and I wanted this album to embrace where they’re at now.”
There’s an obvious poetry in that intention. Naqvi’s octogenarian mentors have traveled so mindfully through their years, they seem to have learned how to liberate their music from time itself. But nothing ever really stays put. Time keeps moving, and so do they — and if you listen to “Two Centuries” with your quietest mind, assorted illusions of stillness might flash across your consciousness, slideshow-style: a glassy pond. A snowy bluff. A dumpster filled with unknowable decomposition. Electricity flowing through a wire. Blood flowing through a limb. Neurons firing. Memories forming. Human life silently listening to its own hum.