Two Centuries is the second album from former ECM producer Sun Chung’s Red Hook label and may one day be regarded as its most defining release. As electronic musician Qasim Naqvi, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Andrew Cyrille put 11 of Naqvi’s tunes under their triangular microscope, the cells of our listening are magnified.
“For D.F.” opens with a political charge. Written for Darnella Frazier, who captured George Floyd’s murder, it uses distortions to evoke the white noise of our collective trauma. As subtle as this music is, with its near-comforting swells and honest lyricism, it offers not a moment of reflection but the reflection of a moment, a vivid gaze at a life lost on the brink of a society in turmoil. This is, perhaps, the deepest nuance of the titular centuries, the dividing line of which is drawn not numerically but on the shifting sands of justice.
What follows is a veritable tilling of melodies made possible as much through listening as playing. The foundation is often forged between Cyrille’s tools and Naqvi’s febrile choices of color. In fortifying each for harvest, they dip into disparate references. Hear, for example, the influence of Bryn Jones in “Sadden Upbeat,” while “Tympanic” recalls Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4.
Contrasts in mood abound, ranging from sunlit (“Palaver”) to brooding (“Wraith”). “Bypass Decay” is of special note, chugging like a train against (and ultimately losing to) an encroaching night. Throughout, Smith speaks (e.g., “Spiritual is 150”) and sings (e.g., “Organum”) in equal measure, but always with a message to convey in the role of griot, reminding us of something spiritual, though severed from any particular tradition. As is evident in “Orion Ave,” where the free-floating hymn reigns supreme, faith walks these empty streets alone, trailing its shadow like a burden of care.