Wadada Leo Smith: The Teacher
AAJ: There seems to have been a recent resurgence of focus on your music in mainstream media and at the same time you have been quite prolific in terms of recordings and touring. What is behind that?
WLS: In terms of public acknowledgment, [you] could say that there is a new emphasis on that, OK? But I have been working all my life. I've got I don't know how many compositions but after 2,000 I stopped counting. That was maybe eight or nine years ago. I don't count them anymore. There is pretty good interest in my work right now, and for that I am very happy, because what that does is it gives me a chance to perform. For example, last year I performed in five American cities and two of them three times. I never did that before.
Does that mean I am writing more music than I ever did before? I am writing about the same amount of music as I composed before and the reason is that I don't wait for assignments to compose. When I get an urge to create a piece of music I sit down and start to work on it.
The other context we are looking at in terms of my music [recording] yes it is a rich time for me. I started working with Cuneiform Records about five years ago. Tabliq was the first album to come out with them. And since then I have been releasing material fairly regular. I recently opened up my Kabel vault. My latest release on Kabel is a duet with Ed Blackwell. So yes, there is a lot of activity right now and I just completed, by the way, a double CD that will be out in May with my Organic ensemble. So there is a lot of stuff coming out. I also got the Guggenheim, the Chamber Music of America commissioned me for some material. I've just been moving through it in a normal way, creating the music, and trying to create opportunities for people to hear more of my music.
AAJ: Do you have any theory of why there has been this renewed focus?
WLS: First and foremost, I thank God. For me this is the most important. Also, it has to do with this: I think John Zorn and Tzadik started it. Because they were the first people to seriously put my music out. Any project I did, they put it out there. For that, I thank John Zorn, not many would do that. At that time, I was getting rejections upon rejections upon rejections. For him to have the foresight to put my music out was a big blessing for me. So he started it. If you look at his label he put out a vast variety of my musicfrom chamber music for contemporary ensembles, to classical ensembles, to creative ensembles, to large ensembles for creative music, like the one I did for orchestrathat all started the thing to move. Then when I started putting music out on Cuneiform it started to move to a different level. Because essentially at Cuneiform their policy is to push the music has hard as they could. They have a very powerful network and they work very hard. All these things help to create the continuity from project to project.
AAJ: Let's talk a little about the various ensembles you are working with now, how they are distinct and what they mean to you.
WLS: Let me start [with] The Golden Quartet. I was thinking, for a long time, that I wanted to make an ensemble centered around the notion of only four people. and having essentially the same instrumentation as the orchestra. Truly the notion of a quartet, almost anywhere around the planet, in any culture has this really distinct level of respect. For example string quartets or woodwind quartets, the piano quartet, creative music quartets, jazz quartets all have this very distinct thing.
And what makes them distinct is this: you have the basic center of the orchestra there. You have a string instrument, you have a keyboard, you got a percussionist, and a wind instrument. That's it. Now why is that important? And why is four important? Four is important because in a quartet you have the maximum range for possibility of interaction for all four players. Not just the interaction of the range but also the ability to have space to elaborate and explore musical ideas. That also opens up in a quartet setting. But most specifically some of the most powerful music in the jazz and creative music arena quartet music is at the center of it. And the last reason is you have very little music...with trumpet, bass and drums in a quartet. There isn't a lot of that. It's only a small batch. There is some. with Miles Davis. And Booker Little in a quartet. That is one of the other reasons. I wanted to do something that was a little different.
AAJ: What about the Organic ensemble? WLS: I wanted to have an experimental ensemble that really used guitars in a way that [they] not only performed a sound relationship to create an electronic sphere of massive sound, but I also wanted it to have the activity of how you stroke or pick the guitar, to have that percussive quality to it. I added the two bases because it is very difficult to write for two basses. I wanted to learn to write for two basses. Skuli [Sverrisson] and John [Lindberg] had been in another ensemble of mine that I disbanded, called Southern. That was my first experiment writing for two basses and I wanted to carry that forward. I wanted to create this ensemble with this fantastic horizontal and vertical mash of sound. I wanted to have it so that that thickness was not its only quality, that is the sound and electronic part, but also the context of the way that the instrument was played would be an added quality of the ensemble. And [I wanted] the music to be experimental and have a beat to it and to have those qualities that young people are interested in. But it functions essentially in the same way as any of my ensembles. The solos have to be creative. They are not geared toward trying to make a popular music version of something, but should still expose and explore new realities about space.
AAJ: You also have another ensemble, the Silver Orchestra.
WLS: The context behind the Silver Orchestra is that I wanted to explore the idea we talked about earlier, about instruments and their family and how you let them sound in the way the instrument builder made them. Well, the Silver Orchestra allows me to have at least 10-12 performers, and I pick them based off of the instrumentation. For example, the last performance of the Silver Orchestra was on November 19th (2010) in New York City. Where I had I think 14 players. I had the French horn which is in the key of F, E-flat and D-flat clarinet. I had the alto flute which is also in F. The B-flat in the trumpet.
AAJ: So the orchestra is not always the same?
WLS: It grows over the years, because there is not much opportunity to play with it. But the focus is to get as many different pitched instruments in that ensemble so that you can hear the vastness of what this philosophy is about non-transposition of the instruments. You allow the instruments to sound in their natural key. If your instrument is in B-flat, I write the music so that it can have its own dynamics in B-flat. If your instrument is in E-flat, same thing. So when I mix the C, E-flats, B-flats, and the Fs and the Gs, in the orchestra it is going to create six different streams of musical sonics, six different sonic spheres. Not just the C sonic sphere when you transpose it. You see how important that is? I got six different sonic spheres that I am causing to sound within the space of the performance environment as well as the acoustical relationship of how pitches and sounds relate to their instruments. That is what the Silver Orchestra is about.
AAJ: I also want to ask about the Yo, Miles project.
WLS: The Yo Miles Project, to be truthful about it, is already finished. We have not had a performance in almost six or seven years. It's been a long time...but what I can say is this, we just released two online CDs of live performance from that band Lightning and Shinjuku. So even though it is a band that is essentially not active, those two CDs coming out will show people something new about it, show what it [was] live. Most of the music that is being released is my music, music I composed for the band.
AAJ: What was the genesis of revisiting the Miles' electric period and why do you think that portion of his music has been overlooked?
WLS: First of all it was overlooked because everyone thought it was rock and roll [aughs]. And that is the biggest cultural lie in the world [laughs]. Because if anybody wants to know if it was rock and roll or not let them perform this test. Play Miles Davis and then let them play any music that they think that music sounds like. They can play the Eagles, or Jimi Hendrix. Play any band next to Miles and the first thing they are gonna realize is that oh my God, I didn't think it was really this long!
But let me go back to your question. The idea was Henry Kaiser's. He came to a performance of mine, a solo performance up in the bay. Afterwards we sat talking to each other and he said he was exploring the idea of making a band that looks at Miles Davis' music and would you be interested. And I said yes, definitely. So we started thinking about who we should get, and eventually we got it together. But the idea was this: we wanted to develop that music of Miles Davis in the new decade, a different decade. Miles Davis music was in the '70s and this was the '90s, early 2000. We wanted to develop the music so it would have a contemporary expression to it, how it sounds now. And to show that that music is ageless. It is not dead by time zone. The way Miles made it, it was creative. And because it is creative it leaves lots of room for it to live on and on and on. I am reminded when I think about Miles Davis what Bob Marley said. Asked about his music he said , "my music will live forever." And he was right. It will live forever. Because truly authentic musical creations they don't belong to timing.
I would love to play with that band again. That is something I forgot to mention [before] that helped my career. Those double CDs, they got hundreds of reviews. Everywhere, you know? Hundreds of reviews! That was also a prime mover of making people take note of what I was doing.