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A Fireside Chat With Wadada Leo Smith

AAJ Staff By

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Free jazz denotes an idiom and has little to do with freedom. John Litweiler’s The Freedom Principle chronicles how Leo Smith, born in Leland, Mississippi, a hub for the blues, entered into the service (outspoken of racial conditions in the army), discovered Don Cherry, moved to Chicago, joined the AACM, and developed into a standard for lyrical contrasts and space. And although the word “jazz” has not aged well, perhaps there is hope in the masters like Smith (unedited and in his own words), progressively propelling the music forward, preventing “jazz” from becoming obsolete.

FRED JUNG: How influential has the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) been to the annals of improvised music?

WADADA LEO SMITH: Well, I think it is one of those milestones, where people can not only look back and see that there was a conscious effort to try to control part of the industry, at least the most important parts of it, like creativity and economics. It showed for the first time that you could actually set up a structure in which artists could work in without losing faith and breaking down into some kind of non-communicative zone, which happens to most organizations after seven or eight years. They get lost. The AACM has stood the test of time. It has overcome all of its challenges from inside and outside. It is still a golden idea that could be perfected because it is not perfect.

FJ: You played with Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins in a short-lived trio, the Creative Construction Company.

WLS: That came one day after being in the AACM and knowing Braxton. Braxton said that we should get together and play. At the time, he was living in what was called the Musicians Building in Chicago. A lot of people lived there that played music. So Leroy Jenkins didn’t live far from there and I lived on the near North Side and so we gathered there on Saturday or Sunday afternoons and started playing this music. It sounded so good that we agreed to make a trio out of it that same day. That is how that trio came out. As you know, Fred, when we went to Europe a little bit later, Steve McCall became part of us.

FJ: And the relationship with Braxton has continued for the better part of four decades.

WLS: That is one of the qualities of the AACM. Once you have some kind of intimate musical relationship with one of these guys or women, you have a commitment as an AACM person to really keep that connection and make that music.

FJ: Serendipitously, you studied at Wesleyan, where Braxton would later become a member of the faculty.

WLS: That is right, in the world music department. I was looking for confirmation and corroboration of ideas and certain kinds of notions about music. Wesleyan was the perfect place. It had a good world music department. It had people there from Bali, from Ghana. The head of the music school was teaching Native American music and cultural performance traditions. So it was a good place to go.

FJ: Rastafari was recorded twenty years ago for the Sackville label. Boxholder has since reissued the session, co-lead by Bill Smith.

WLS: It is extremely fresh because systemic music, music of systems, they have a chance to be fresh and new depending on the quality of ideas of the beholder. So it is based around the notion of language being the carrier of information as opposed to styles and attitudes and the way that it has been traditionally constructed. If you have a structure, a systemic base or something, for example, paint, a particular color has a numeric number that represents it symbolically. That same symbolic number for other types of color also are there. So you have this range of transfer of information where it becomes kind of like a language. That keeps it fresh. I know that is a new and very different way to look at it. The idea or notion that this is a system in which one can construct new and creative ideas about how the universe looks presents that freshness.

FJ: During much of the Seventies and early Eighties, you produced music on your own label, Kabell. As a member of the AACM, you had recording opportunities, why did you develop Kabell?

WLS: I started it primarily for documentation purposes. That was the initial thrust of it. That meant that if I felt that I had something a little bit different that I reached or achieved in the music, I would try to go in the studio and record it and place it for sale in a context where there wouldn’t be too many middle people. It was a nice way of trying to show your music in a noncommercial way. It showed what paths you were traveling through. A little bit later, I got the idea of trying to make it much grander and approached different people about making a Kabell series, but most of them were uninterested in that idea. I did four records and one cassette.

FJ: Those recordings are being reissued by Tzadik as part of a box set.

WLS: Yes, in fact, it is coming out very soon. It will be out in September. It is a four-CD set. There is new material on there. There is new solo material that I did. There is another series of tapes that have been transferred for this new box set release that Wes Brown, Anthony Davis, and I did, the original trio, the New Dalta Ahkri trio. That is pretty exciting. There is at least forty or sixty minutes of that music that was recorded a year after the original Reflectativity came out. It is the missing link out of the first original New Dalta Ahkri music and it is going to be in that box set.

FJ: The Golden Quartet featuring Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors, and Jack DeJohnette has releases on both the Tzadik and Pi labels. Will it continue?

WLS: It is difficult, but the difficulty is within the capacity of our schedules. There is quite a bit of resistance against this band by organizers. Not by fans because the record sales are good and not by critics because the critics have given us a resounding support. It has been sold out every time we’ve played, whether on a festival in Europe, or a college gig, or in Central Park. Not only has it been sold out, but when that band hits the stage, people are excited. It has been very difficult because when you have a quartet like there where everybody has been successful on some level, it is not a cheap ensemble. That is the first thing. Secondly, it seems like there is a difficulty in perception. I have had many people like yourself ask why the band doesn’t come out here. It doesn’t come out because we’ve not been offered anything here where there is enough money to do that.

FJ: Conversely, would the quartet be willing to take less just to play Los Angeles?

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