A Fireside Chat with Wadada Leo Smith

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The pedal expressions that I use are distinctly different from Miles and the guitar player.
I am reminded daily that perfection is an endless pursuit and that those who are in the arena often go unnoticed and unrewarded. But it is because of their artistic valor that creativity remains. Their innovative spirit keeps us from the abyss and for that we are beholden to them.

All About Jazz: What disciplines did you attain from your association with the AACM?

Wadada Leo Smith: One of the most important ones if that you really shape your own future. You determine your own future. If one door is closed, you go to the next one and if all the doors are closed, then you build another damn door and open that one. Self-perseverance is one of the most powerful lessons that you can learn in the AACM. It trickled down from the notion that you play only your own music on through to presenting your own concerts and CDs. You manage as much as possible, a lifestyle that allows you to do this so that you are not in debt and the psychological problems of earning. That whole notion of self-perseverance, being able to accomplish what needs to be done no matter what the odds are against you. Langston Hughes has a poem about a young man complaining to his grandmother about how hard the times were and she informed him that no matter how hard the times are, you must continue because that is the tradition. You keep going forward. You do not allow events and objects which are placed in front of you to obstruct your mobility and progression. That is no excuse. It even applies to racism. Even race, where it seeks to defeat you and block your progress, even that is not a hindrance. We have been committed to be successful regardless of what people think and treat you.

AAJ: But realistically, with only 24 hours implement the evolution, where do you as an artist find time beyond the creative process to be an executive, a promoter, a producer, an educator, or a liberator?

LS: I know four guys. I know Anthony Braxton rises before sunrise. I know that Leroy Jenkins rises before sunrise. I know that Muhal Richard Abrams rises before sunrise. And I wake up and am active before sunrise. All these people I just mentioned work straight through the day. When the sun sets, they approach getting the day done. My day can be finished as the sun sets. We follow the progression of the sun. When sun carries itself across the atmosphere, it carries with it a band of energy. The night of darkness has a much lower level of energy. If you follow those natural coordinates, there is no problem to doing what you have to do. It also keeps you from being confused by the climate you're in or depressed by the climate you're in. You don't let that kind of stuff become part of you because it engages bad health. So you keep positive. You make sure you don't hate anybody. You don't create enemies.

AAJ: Is it pragmatic to consider life without contempt?

LS: Well, if you want to change the course of a river, you don't try and stop the river. You bit by bit implement barriers that will cause it to turn. Eventually, once you place all the barriers, you will have a natural bend in the river that will cause it to flow the other way without obstructing its energy.

AAJ: How has the Yo Miles! project with Henry Kaiser matured?

LS: Essentially, Henry and I had a deep conversation about Miles' music. He told me that he was interested in making a project like that and I told him that I was interested and that he could count me in. He went about selecting players and he got Shanachie to put forth the money for the first project. On the first project, we began by respecting Miles' creativity by not emulating how he made his music, but use the same kind of concepts that he used. Not recreate, but create again another format or another viewpoint of his artistic vision. That first record, from the artistic point of view, it reached nice levels, but if you compare it to the second project, Sky Garden, it is an entirely different. Sky Garden had a different breed of musicians on it. The players, not only understood how you do this music, but they were able to take musical commands and gestures and not be inhibited by what was done before with those gestures, but to create in a more spontaneous way. Steve Smith is an excellent drummer and the keyboard player, Tom Coster. But that whole band of the Yo Miles! Sky Garden is probably the highest level this band has achieved.

AAJ: How does the music unfold?

LS: How do we work? We go in the studio and I take my notebook. I record a bunch of music throughout the year in my notebook. We play a Miles piece. We get it right. And then we do a piece that is not Miles, but in the tradition. Within thirty minutes or so, that piece is down. There is no shortcomings on it. Everybody is completely focused in and it is down.

AAJ: So by design Yo Miles! elaborates on what is considered sacred ground in improvised music.

LS: I don't listen to Miles before I go and make this music. That is the first thing. On the first record, when I hooked up the electric trumpet and the pedals, I had never touched those pieces before in the studio. That means that I have not tried to check out how Miles did his pedals. My pedal work is far more complicated and sophisticated than Miles' was. Miles used it as a kind of expression in relationship to his music. I use it systemically. I use it as a concept of system. I employ the same kind of system that I have done over the years. The pedal expressions that I use are distinctly different from Miles and the guitarist. That is one approach. The other approach is that when Miles Davis made a bass line or a distinguished melody, he would take those bass lines and melodies and reuse them. On top of that, he would create a new impression on it. Systemic music is a formula for how you create something and that formula can be read by other practitioners, who get very different results from it. It is a complicated mathematical formula. If an artist works systemically as opposed to melodically, or harmonically, or even conceptually, then you have the freedom of interpreting the data before you. The key is that when you are working with an artist like Miles Davis, who was a systemic composer/performer, many of his melodies are formulas for making music. They are not just melodies. You have room to really explore the dimensions as they are laid out in their original state.

AAJ: And there is a second volume of your duet with Anthony Braxton.

LS: I called Braxton to see if he wanted to formulate our duet again since we hadn't done it in ten or fifteen years. In fact, we have only played three duets together in our whole professional lives - once in Chicago, once in France, and this one in New York. Neither of the earlier two produced material. There is no recording of the first one, which was in 1967. This other one in France was for the radio, but we never acquired the tapes. We decided we would do it on a Saturday night and we looked at the music an hour before we played it. All of it was new music that I had never seen and that he had never seen. We didn't send music through the mail because our relationship is that we can sit down and look at the score and talk about it and go and do it. We don't sound check the music. We sat down one hour before and decided which pieces we were going to play. We hugged and embraced each other and we go out like gladiators. We try our best to recreate the universe with every entrance of breath and exit of breath. It is always a challenge to play with Braxton because it is always a fresh moment. Once you get into it, you don't care if you are alive or dead because the only thing that matters is achieving the goal.

AAJ: That kind of blind trust goes beyond musical bonds to unabridged unity.

LS: There is an absolute pinnacle of trust. You cannot do it otherwise. The trust goes so deep that we go out and eat the same food. Braxton generally eats bad food. When I'm doing this duet with Braxton, we eat the same food because that is the level which our communication exists on.

AAJ: And the future?

LS: I have a Silver Orchestra, which includes some of the greatest musicians in New York: John Zorn, Susie Ibarra, Jennifer Choi, Marc Ribot, Gerald Cleaver, John Lindberg, Craig Taborn. We just made a beautiful record. We played at Tonic in April. The next day, we recorded. That is coming out in November on the Tzadik label.

AAJ: Since Malachi Favors untimely death, have you continued the Golden Quartet?

LS: The Golden Quartet is completely brand new now. It has John Lindberg on bass, Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, and Vijay Iyer on piano. That is the new Golden Quartet.

AAJ: You imported Shannon Jackson from Texas.

LS: That's right. And I have created a third ensemble called Blue. You see the colors coming through: silver, gold, and blue. Blue is an electric ensemble that includes me on mostly electric trumpet, Tyondai Braxton, and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. Both the new Golden Quartet and Blue, I plan to get them both in the studio this year. The Golden Quartet will be performing in September 2005 in Southern California. There will be a performance of the Golden Quartet and a Persian quartet. I was commissioned to do music for a double quartet. That will be at REDCAT.

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