Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force
The Pacifica panel shown in this article illustrates how Smith's panels appear. It was originally drawn in its inspirational moment in 2005. Between 2006 and 2007, Smith spent researching the detailed information he was to include in the final form of the panel. The panel seems to be divided into two parts, the upper and the lower, but the upper and lower parts are indivisible in regards to how they inform the musicians about the music: "the performers move from upper to lower or lower to upper when performing Pacifica."
The upper section specifies how the lower bracketed section is to be played in terms of cycles. The ornamented line or "sonic string," that flies off the upper section denotes "other material to be used in the creating the music. For example, there are eight known objects connected to the sonic string. Four are from Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Udjat-eye, the Human-eye, the Heart and boat that carry the soul to the next world. Two stars, the one in the sky and a Star Fish, the new Silver Moon and the Sun, plus the sonic string are used to create the music." In other words, how this symbolic information affects the players influences how they play the music.
The lower section consists of drawings symbolizing waves in a spectrum of colors, from red to black. To the right of the color of each wave image is written a measurement in meters from "0 M" to "200 M." These measurements, Smith says, describe "the depth that light penetrates into the ocean. It reaches down 200-plus meters, and below that depth is darkness. The water surface reflects about fifteen to twenty percent of the in-coming light. Those depths, colors and size of waves are what the musicians use in their exploration to create the music."
The piece, "Pacifica," can be heard on the first disc of Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009), in a performance by his Golden Quartet. This is the only recording of that score.
When a piece is performed, Smith controls everythingin a solo situation, of course, but more notably with his groups. He creates the program; he sets up the rehearsals; he oversees the material that is discussed in rehearsal. Smith teaches each player to unlearn his own performance style so that the music begins from a clean slate and can be created afresh. Smith cares that the members of his groups function along democratic lines, so that each has an equal chance to contribute to the music for his own personal fulfillment, therefore producing sound of the highest quality. Smith balances composition and improvisation so that neither outweighs the other and most importantly, so that the mystery is maintained and human nature prevails.
"In spiritual terms," he says, "I lead the prayer."
Smith's job is to keep the ensemble as one. He holds "the key to everybody's part and how to make everybody's part the key to the main door." He guides the members of the group through gestures, eye contact or giving cues, "guiding them through the doors to the most powerful place that is not written or discussed." The inspiration that arises through playing "comes through like a tsunami, when the ensemble is in tune and connected with each other." The main door is the door that opens to the "other side." For Smith, alone, "the other side is space or an artistic dimension where I lose the sense of fear, caring, the need of anything. There, my music has a direct path to a creative completeness that does not require my ordinary efforts, but, a quality of music-making that could not have come forth unless I gave it a channel or presence. It has a psychology that is common to mystical experience, and the major difference is the results. That is, to create a music-object in the present-moment."
In one year, 2009, Smith released five albums. Two were rereleases for the first time on CD, on the Nessa labelSpirit Catcher, from 1979, and 1989's The Procession of the Great Ancestry. Three were first releasesAmerica (Tzadik), Abbey Road Quartet (Treader), and Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform). As with every album Smith generateswhether as a soloist or with a groupeach recording has a specific message. He may remain interested in a particular subject matter for his musical stories, but he wants to produce music that is always new, not a rehash of the past.
Smith's intention in Sprit Catcher was to reveal an idea of "spaced-ness or how sound and silence work in a large context." The music was written without counting as a component as a means to explore the concept of rhythm units. There is one quintet and one quartet featured; in each Smith is leader on trumpet.
Smith conceived The Procession of the Great Ancestry as a "super dedication," rather than a tribute to what he calls The Trumpet Dynastythose trumpeters whom he believes shaped trumpet playing for creative music. This recording was "not to portray the psychological character" of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Booker Little or Roy Eldridge, but to convey "a personal realization of each artist." The record opens with a vocal, combined with instrumental, celebration of the blues, and continues with compositions whose spark is the abolishment of slavery and civil rights. Seven musicians are listed as members of the bands; not all play on every piece.
America is a duet with Smith on trumpet and, longtime colleague, Jack DeJohnette on drums. For Smith, this is a special recording. It is dedicated to his bluesman stepfather, and "first mentor," Alex Wallace. The music was written as "a gesture of trying to assert something that is unique about America." The stories told on this record revolve around slavery and civil rights; the last piece focuses on a lesson taught in the Sufi tradition about "passing away from the self into enlightenment," and was conceived on the day before the session when, while taking a walk, Smith derived a set of intervals from the birdsongs he heard. Smith and DeJohnette spent three-and-a-half hours at the recording session, playing straight through. "We got it right the first time. The music is pure."
Abbey Road Quartet was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London in 2008. Dedicating each piece to a well-known musician of both the past and present, Smith works with a band featuring John Coxon, of the English duo Spring Heel Jack. In this record, Smith navigates his trumpet through waves of electronic sound produced by electric guitar and synthesizer. The drums balance out the acoustic instrumentation. The music is collectively improvised, projects a dilated rhythmic organization, but is as much about silence as it is sound.
The double-CD Spiritual Dimensions features two of Smith's groups, The Golden Quartet and Organic. The Golden Quartet was recorded at the Vision Festival in 2008; Organic was recorded at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT in 2009. In both cases, the common element is Smith: "the composer is me, the leader is me." Smith considers the Golden Quartet recording as "contemplative," because it is concerned with Sufism, Islam and spirituality; he assesses the Organic recording as "funky." The latter, he explains, shows another side of him. The compositional challenge he undertook was "how to harness an extra dimension of sound" using electric instruments and pedals. Smith is not interested in making noise; he is interested in "expanding the relationships between the sounds." Smith feels that he meets these challenges successfully, and is "very easy with the way the music evolves." Common to the performance of both groups is the composition "South Central L.A. Kulture"; the last track on the Golden Quartet disc and the first on the Organic set.
In all of these recordings, Smith's horn rises in and out of the music in an unforgettable brilliant single line, unhindered, uninhibited by the kind of music that surrounds him. His horn playing is so exquisitely integrated into the whole sound that it sings a song of glory, in a simple response to the music-making process.
Smith has four groupsThe Golden Quartet, Organic, Silver Orchestra and Mbira. He handpicks each musician for the music that is going to be played for the reason that he feels that each "has the potential for understanding different kinds of musical language." He chooses musicians "who have a little bit of courage and don't mind exploring themselves along with me. My performers are like laboratories where they investigate themselves and kind of root out for themselves how they fit into the ensemble with the information they get from me and how they use the information they come up with on their own."