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Leo Smith and New Dalta Ahkri

Daniel Barbiero By

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Coming to New England: Emerson, Ives and Brown

When trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith returned to the United States after having spent 1969-1970 in Europe, he settled not in New York, as most jazz musicians might be expected to do, or even in Chicago, where he'd spent a fruitful several years in the 1960s. Instead, he chose to settle in New Haven, Connecticut.

New Haven at the time was, as it largely still is, an economically straitened, post-industrial college town—on the surface, at least, not the kind of place one would expect a creative musician like Smith to choose as a place of residence. But he had his reasons.

The first of them was his friend and colleague the alto saxophonist Marion Brown, whom he'd met in Europe. Brown had relocated to New Haven from Atlanta after his own time in Europe, and had found work as a resource teacher with the Yale Child Studies Center. It was at Brown's suggestion that Smith came to town, and in fact Smith stayed with Brown when he first arrived in 1972.

But beyond the personal connection with Brown, Smith was attracted to the area because of its rich intellectual and cultural heritage, which he found appealing. As he recounted to Jon Litweiler in the latter's classic book The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (Da Capo Press, 1990), he "felt a sense of spiritual birth in America" that he found personified in figures like composers Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives, and thinkers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass, all of whom were associated with Connecticut or New England. It seemed to him that the region they'd inhabited or helped to define would be congenial to him as an artist and a person. As it must have been; he stayed in the New Haven area through the 1970s and early 1980s and, after recently retiring from a faculty position at Cal Arts, returned there.

It was in New Haven that Smith formed one of his longest-lived ensembles: New Dalta Ahkri. As he told Vancouver musician-journalist Bill Smith in a 1975 interview, he'd first conceived the idea for the group in 1970. But it wasn't until he made the acquaintance of some of the younger musicians in New Haven that he was able to bring it to fruition. What he found in the city was a handful of people as young as nineteen years old who he felt shared an attitude toward music similar to his own. These young people were a trio of musicians attending school or active musically in the New Haven area: pianist Anthony Davis, then attending Yale; bassist Wes Brown, who was studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan in nearby Middletown; and drummer Paul Maddox, later known as Pheeroan AkLaff, a transplant from Detroit. These three musicians, at different times and in different combinations, would play in New Dalta Ahkri over the course of its existence in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Ahkreanvention, Rhythm Units and the Notes

Not long after settling in the New Haven area, Smith began formulating some of the ideas and developing some of the tools that would provide the foundation of his practice as composer and improviser not only during his stay in New Haven, but afterward as well. These included a notational system he called ahkreanvention, and a musical concept he called the rhythm unit. He described both in a 1978 statement that was published as the liner note to his recording Divine Love (ECM, 1979).

In the statement, Smith characterized ahkreanvention as "a notation system for scoring sound, rhythm and silence, or for scoring improvisation." The written sections of the music were notated with symbols representing duration, improvisation and "moving sounds of different velocities," which were placed on staffs representing relative pitch. Ahkreavention is notable for embodying Smith's solution to the problem of notating pieces combining composed and improvised elements in a holistic, organic manner.

In contrast to ahkreanvention, which was a tool for notating a musical work, the rhythm unit was a concept for structuring musical phrases. In essence, the rhythm unit was conceived as a binary musical entity in which a given sound event is followed by a silence of approximately the same length. As Smith told John Litweiler,

"For me, a whole sound or a whole rhythm is dual; it's divided up into the audible property and the inaudible property—that is, the sound you hear and the sound you don't hear."

Multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, who studied under Smith at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York in 1977, reminisced to Peter E. Sweet how Smith explained that a musical phrase is best perceived and understood when an equivalent period of silence follows its sounds. Smith's reasoning was that silence allows assimilation of the sounds immediately preceding it, and marks them as discrete phrases with profiles and properties discernibly their own. Silence, in other words, can shape not only the creation of a musical phrase, but its perception and comprehension as well.

The upshot of all this is that within Smith's concept of improvisation, silence was put on a par with sound and mated to sound in a reciprocal relationship: for every unit or event made up of sound, there should be a corresponding and equivalent unit or event of silence. Smith thus saw silence not as a strictly sound-related value but as a structural element framing duration and making the latter explicitly allude to empty audio space. Envisioning sound and silence in this kind of reciprocal, structural relationship had implications not only for the individual performer, but for the overall weave and density of an ensemble's collective sound, for, as a binary unit balancing passages of sound against passages of silence, the rhythm unit inevitably would play a kind of regulatory role in relation to the group's textural density and dynamics.

It was precisely to the dynamics and interplay of an improvising ensemble that Smith turned his attention in Notes (8 Pieces), a monograph that he self-published in a limited edition of 200 copies in 1973. (Happily, the Notes was republished, with additional later material, by Corbett vs. Dempsey in connection with a 2015 retrospective exhibition of Smith's language scores by the University of Chicago's Renaissance Society.) The Notes represents Smith's early effort to craft a comprehensive statement of artistic purpose, as well as to set out and systematize the approach to improvisation that he was developing at the time. In doing so, Smith not only addressed the elements that make up an improvisation, but the improvising group's internal dynamics as well.

The Notes is written in a loose, often enigmatic manner, but it does effectively convey Smith's vision of the improvising ensemble as a collection of independent, self-directed elements, each of which is to serve as a point of focus within the whole. Smith's basic postulate was that each player would function as an autonomous center of improvisation within the larger group; in "Notes on My Music Part 1," he described this autonomy in terms of

"each improviser creat[ing] as an element of the whole, only responding to that which is creating within himself instead of responding to the total energy of the different units...each element [being] autonomous in its relationship to the improvisation."

Smith further underscored the autonomy of the improvisers when, in "other notes part 3," he described players as being independent "in relationship to time." Because time is the measure by which voices can be coordinated, Smith's suggestion opens up the possibility that individual players' entrances and exits within the group sound could be made on the basis of individual choices rather than with regard to creating unisons or otherwise coordinating lines with other players. This would give the ensemble the kind of kaleidoscopic, highly mobile sound in which the ebb and flow of individual performers' autonomous playing would keep the center of the performance in constant motion, as the music's peaks and valleys, and convergences and divergences, would follow dynamically from what the players are doing, both singly and coincidentally.

In short, in the kind of autonomous-collective ensemble of individuals that Smith proposes, the logic of any given player's line would be driven by internal rather than external factors. Each player's line would develop as an internal synthesis of the accumulating sequence of his or her own chosen notes and sounds and silences; the collective dimension of the ensemble's performance would then rest on a dynamic of self-directed, self-organized lines projecting forward into a common musical space and combining therein through a spontaneously arrived-at simultaneity. The upshot is that the ensemble's collective sound would be an emergent property arising from the simultaneous occurrence of the different players' lines. An ensemble playing by these principles can be expected to produce a spontaneous counterpoint based on independently formulated lines rather than on the conscious imitation, variation or embellishment of surrounding lines.

The First Recordings

It was with the various incarnations of New Dalta Ahkri that Smith was able to put into practice his concept of the ensemble as a collective made up of autonomous voices; the groups' recorded legacy bears witness as to how this practice developed with time and personnel changes.

The first recording made by a New Dalta Ahkri was Reflectativity. This recording represents the original iteration of the group: a trio made up of Smith, Anthony Davis and Wes Brown. The two long tracks that make up the album were composed by Smith and recorded live in November, 1974 at New Haven's Educational Center for the Arts, and were originally released in 1975 on Smith's own Kabell label. As might be expected in light of the ideas Smith was working out at the time the pieces were recorded, both performances are notable for their integration of empty space with scored and improvised sound.

The composition "Reflectativity" is organized around unaccompanied cadenzas for trumpet, piano and double bass interwoven with solos framed with minimal accompaniment. The piece's contrastive dynamics—for example, a quiet gong interlude follows an intense piano solo from Davis; Smith switches from full-throated to muted trumpet —help create the sense that in practice, sound and silence don't exist in a black-and-white, either/or opposition but rather as a series of degrees along a scale. The second piece on the album, "t wumkl-D," is initially scored for the full ensemble in brief, simultaneous and rapid phrases broken up by silences of approximately equal length: a textbook case of the application of rhythm units to performance practice, as it were. The body of the performance is given over to a lengthy improvisation of constantly changing sound colors as the group play in unpredictably shifting sections for solo, duo and trio configurations. The ensemble's color palette is further enhanced by Smith and Brown's doubling on flutes, and Smith's interventions on bells, chimes and gongs. It's worth noting that although Davis and Brown were relatively inexperienced at the time—this is their first appearance on record— there's little that's tentative about their playing. They can be forceful or restrained as needed at any given time, and are adept at leaving an airy openness around Smith's trumpet lines.

In February, 1975, just a few months after Reflectativity was recorded, the New Dalta Ahkri trio, with saxophonist Oliver Lake now added to make it a quartet, was in the studio of New York radio station WKCR. The group recorded the long piece "Play Ebony Play Ivory," which was released for the first time on Tzadik's 2004 box-set reissue of Smith's Kabell catalogue. "Play Ebony Play Ivory" finds the group sound continuing to evolve, albeit with the concern for working within an uncluttered space remaining constant. In contrast to the two pieces on Reflectativity, on "Play Ebony Play Ivory" the composed elements are salient and easily identifiable. After a piano introduction, the trumpet and alto saxophone introduce a theme in unison, which recurs in fragments and variations at different points throughout the piece; it's the unison statement that makes the theme stand out and gives it a special piquancy upon its reprise. As with the performances on Reflectativity, the music's sense of space is embodied in a textural dynamic expressed through the tendency of the ensemble to break up into changing subsets. There are duets for bass and trumpet, piano and bass, and two flutes, and trios for bass, trumpet and piano and bass, trumpet and alto saxophone. Davis' piano provides linkages joining the piece's several sections, and injects an element of swing into music that often floats in time.

It was a further expanded New Dalta Ahkri that appeared on the album Song of Humanity. Now a quintet with the addition of drummer Pheeroan akLaff, the group recorded the album live at The Gallery in New Haven in early August 1976; the record was released on Smith's Kabell label the following year. The album is notable for its inclusion of two compositions by Davis. One of them, "Of Blues and Dreams," found a longstanding place in Davis' repertoire and, recast for solo piano, had even provided the title track for a 1978 album of his. Played at The Gallery by the New Dalta Ahkri quintet, the piece combines composed and improvised passages in a holistic manner. Davis' strong melodies imply the blues without drawing on explicit blues patterns of harmony or phrasing; the long, keening tones of the main melody capture the intensity and mood of the blues in an indirect yet effective way. Whether stated by Smith and Lake in unison or reworked through improvisation, Davis' melodies run like a backbone throughout the entire piece. As arranged for the Gallery ensemble, the piece's continuity of melodic and harmonic material is offset by structural discontinuities brought about through changes of orchestration. As with "Play Ebony, Play Ivory," shifting subsets of the group define the piece's various sections, whether composed or improvised.

The May just prior to the Gallery show found the same quintet, supplemented by drummer Stanley Crouch, on the bill for a jazz festival held at Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea on Bond Street in New York. The festival was famously documented on a set of five Wildlflowers LPs; New Dalta Ahkri was represented on Volume 2 with the relatively brief "Locomotif No. 6." After beginning the piece with a march-like rhythm and theme, the ensemble demonstrates its ability to open up musical space as it breaks out into constantly changing solos, duos, trio, quartets and tutti. Brown's bass is the connective tissue tying together the various events: whether plucked or bowed, his sound is given ample breathing room and restrained support from the two drummers. The performance gives—as indeed, the Gallery set gave as well—good evidence of the sensitive interplay afforded by this configuration of New Dalta Ahkri. A configuration that was soon to change.

A New New Dalta Ahkri

Not long after its performance at The Gallery, New Dalta Ahkri underwent a significant change of personnel that would redefine the group's core membership for the remainder of the decade. In addition to Smith, this new nucleus included vibraharpist Bobby Naughton and saxophonist Dwight Andrews. Although the three would often be joined by other musicians, it was this combination of trumpet, vibes and reeds that would provide the group's basic sound signature.

Naughton was a former rock keyboardist who'd switched to vibes and improvised music after having been exposed to free jazz on record in the late 1960s. At the time he met Smith, Naughton was living in Southbury, Connecticut on property owned by Dadaist Hans Richter, for whom Naughton was an assistant and property caretaker. It was at the suggestion of a friend working for the German label that had licensed Naughton's 1971 album Understanding that Naughton got in touch with Smith. Having made contact, Naughton brought his vibes and some music sketches with him to Smith's Milford apartment, and from that meeting a fruitful and durable creative musical partnership was begun. One of the first projects Naughton and Smith worked on together was the recording of Naughton's classic album The Haunt, a 1976 trio date that in addition to Naughton and Smith included clarinetist Perry Robinson.

Although The Haunt was not a New Dalta Ahkri project, its uncluttered textures and contrapuntal group interplay foreshadowed some of the internal dynamics that would become the hallmark of the ensemble's new iteration. In particular the replacement of Davis' piano with Naughton's vibes produced a substantial change in New Dalta Ahkri's overall sound and web of relationships. Where the piano gave the music a classically-tinged flavor by virtue of the harmonic vocabulary that Davis brought, as well as through the sound of the instrument itself, the vibes' sound signature tied it in with the gongs, chimes and other small percussion instruments the group made liberal use of, and allowed Naughton to provide a strong sense of timbral continuity with these atmospheric, but far from incidental, sounds.

Completing the new New Dalta Ahkri was saxophonist Andrews. At the time he joined the group Andrews was a graduate student at Yale's Divinity School, but before coming to Yale he had obtained a master's degree in woodwind performance from the University of Michigan. In New Haven in the mid 1970s he was playing in Déjà Vu, a local funk and R&B band that included fellow Detroiter akLaff. Andrews was introduced to Smith's music while playing a Yale gig with Déjà Vu—both Andrews' band and Smith's trio were on the same bill.

Smith, Naughton and Andrews incubated the new New Dalta Ahkri trio during weekly rehearsals held at Andrews' office at Yale. The new group was just one product of a very active period for these and related musicians: it was around this same time that Smith, Naughton, Andrews and others laid the foundation for the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum, a collective modeled on Chicago's AACM that was intended to help the New Haven area's creative musicians to make opportunities to work and to take control of their art more generally.

The first recording to feature this version of New Dalta Ahkri was The Mass on the World, a live recording of a set of music the group performed on 15 May 1978 at the Moers Festival in Moers, Germany. The set took the form of a six-part concept suite inspired by Jesuit priest-philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's idea of the earth as an altar. Under New Dalta Ahkri's interpretation, Teilhard's idea is transformed into something nondenominational and cross-culturally universal. Over the course of the suite, Smith's organizing idea of individual voices acting autonomously in time is realized in frequent and substantial solo passages, in countermelodies for trumpet and saxophone played in and out of unison, and in the vibes taking on an active, melodic function rather than a supporting harmonic role. Although the group is only a trio, their basic instrumentation is supplemented by a timbrally rich collection of percussion instruments from various musical traditions, as well as by Andrews' doubling on flute and bass clarinet. As a result, the group's sound is larger than its number would make it appear; the performance itself is as effusive in sound color as it is in feeling.

A few months later, in September 1978, the New Dalta Ahkri trio recorded their first studio album, for ECM. Divine Love is, unsurprisingly, a beautifully recorded collection of music that presents with a shimmering clarity the group at its best. The long title track—which took up all of side one of the original LP—is a floating, extended tone poem announced with an opening invocation from Andrews on alto flute. From the start, the piece establishes and elaborates a mood of serenity that is only strengthened by the contrasting flurry of sounds in the more agitated passages that occasionally emerge from, and quickly recede back into, its placid surface. As with The Mass on the World, the three voices work together as a collective of strongly defined individuals, stating and reprising themes alone in frequent solo spots or playing in alternately intersecting and parallel lines. The phrasing throughout is free, but the piece maintains a sense of coherence by remaining tonally centered. The ensemble again demonstrates a mastery of color with its juxtapositions and overlappings of instrumental voices; in addition to alto flute and vibes, these include muted and unmuted trumpet, a brief appearance of the tenor saxophone, and of course, a wide variety of percussion instruments. Of equal importance to the movement of color is the handling of dynamics throughout the piece. Silence plays a central role in this regard; the performance stands as an excellent example of Smith's idea of the silence-measured rhythm unit put to practical use.

On the album's other two tracks the New Dalta Ahkri trio is joined by trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Lester Bowie (on "Tastalun," dedicated to Bowie), and by bassist Charlie Haden on "Spirituals: The Language of Love."

Epilogue: The 1980s and After

Although the 1970s were chronologically over by the time New Dalta Ahkri played New York City's The Kitchen on 19 January 1980, in a sense they hadn't yet come to an end. The shift in national mood that many felt was ushered in with the Reagan presidency hadn't yet happened; musically, the rolling over of a number on the calendar could hardly be expected to make much of a difference. And for the moment, at least, for New Dalta Ahkri, it hadn't.

The New Dalta Ahkri that played The Kitchen that night was the New Dalta Ahkri of 1979 minus akLaff. The absence of a drummer—even one as sensitive as akLaff—gave the music Smith, Naughton, Andrews and Brown played the distinctive feel of chamber music. But it was chamber music with an especially taut energy.

The Kitchen performance was captured on tape and released as Go in Numbers by the Black Saint label in 1982. Go in Numbers, like The Mass on the World, was a suite built around a concept, in this case African liberation. It was a suite with a symmetrically balanced structure, being bookended by two fully developed solo performances—the opening "World Soul" for Andrew's flute, and the closing "Changes" for Naughton on vibes. Andrews' solo is a compelling essay in improvised Modernist lyricism; its dramatic leaps of register and free tonality (or atonality) situate it in the vicinity of work by Stravinsky and Bartok. Naughton's "Changes," on the other hand, seems akin to a different side of 20th century art music; it is a lovely, introspective soliloquy carrying Impressionist overtones.

The two longer pieces in the middle—the title piece and "Illumination: The Nguzo Saba"—weave together composed and improvised material in a way that provides thematic continuity throughout. Much of the movement in "Go in Numbers" comes by way of very active playing on the vibes and double bass; the trumpet and saxophone are largely limited to motifs of one or two notes that are elongated, smeared, stuttered and overblown. "Illumination: The Nguzo Saba" is a restlessly polyphonic piece for the quartet as a whole and in sections. A middle section for three flutes—Andrews on Western concert flute, Brown on odurogyaba, and Smith on atenteben—gives way to duets for trumpet and vibes and then saxophone and double bass; the piece closes with a finale for muted trumpet, saxophone, vibes and bowed bass.

Go in Numbers shows not only the versatility of the Smith-Naughton-Andrews-Brown quartet, but the consistency of the New Dalta Ahkri concept regardless of the group's personnel makeup. Through its different iterations over the course of a decade New Dalta Ahkri managed to maintain a balance between the autonomy of its individual voices on the one hand, and the cohesion of a collective sound on the other. While its elements might change over time, its constitutive structure never did. The latter always inhered in a set of relationships based on cooperation through independence.

After the performance at The Kitchen New Dalta Ahkri, with akLaff once again participating, played New York's Joseph Papp Public Theatre for a two-date engagement part of which was broadcast later on National Public Radio. The following year they toured Europe and in 1982 undertook a tour of Eastern Europe that brought them to Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, and East Germany. Then, at the conclusion of the 1982 tour, Smith disbanded the group. Even so, some of the musicians continued to work with Smith on subsequent projects. Among these were the 1983 recording Procession of the Great Ancestry, which included Naughton. The 1984 JAH Music, a recording from the period when Smith became a Rastafarian (and adopted the name "Wadada"), also included Naughton among the guest musicians. Interestingly enough, this little-known cassette release on Smith's Kabell label was credited to New Dalta Ahkri. And there it ends.

Or seems to have. In March 2019, on the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 release of Divine Love, Knoxville, Tennessee's Big Ears Festival featured a set billed as Leo Smith and NDA performing Divine Love. It was, in fact, a reunion of Smith, Naughton and Andrews, the core trio who'd made the original recording. The Big Ears set may have been a rare, if not unique, event, but it was more than an occasion for nostalgia. It was, above all, an affirmation of the lasting value of the music New Dalta Ahkri had made over the course of a creatively rich decade.

Photo credit: F. Pluff / Bobby Naughton

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