Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force

Lyn Horton By

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The Performance

When a piece is performed, Smith controls everything—in 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."

The Records

In one year, 2009, Smith released five albums. Two were rereleases for the first time on CD, on the Nessa label—Spirit Catcher, from 1979, and 1989's The Procession of the Great Ancestry. Three were first releases—America (Tzadik), Abbey Road Quartet (Treader), and Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform). As with every album Smith generates—whether as a soloist or with a group—each 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 Dynasty—those 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 groups—The 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."

And Lastly

Since Ornette Coleman turned jazz around with his own harmolodic system of music organization, Smith says, jazz cannot be recreated. Jazz lies at the core of the music that followed it, but cannot be redone because the age has changed. Smith is a part of that age of change. He is a creative musician. He has realized yet another means to organize music that is about freedom, the same kind of freedom that accompanies the unrestricted improvisations that are the blues, which are so dear to and in his heart.

He rediscovers himself every day, both as a musician and as a human being, a part of nature, a part of the world. He practices a religious tradition where teaching and learning go hand in hand and are a part of one another. He is a conveyor of ideas with which he is exceedingly generous.

In the same way that silence and sound complete each other, so does the trumpet and writing music complete Wadada Leo Smith.

Selected Discography

Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform Records, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Abbey Road Quartet (Treader, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith/Jack DeJohnette, America (Tzadik, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Procession of the Great Ancestry (Nessa, 1989, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Spirit Catcher (Nessa, 1979, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, Tabligh (Cuneiform Records, 2008)
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith/Yo Miles!, Upriver (Cuneiform, 2005)

Wadada Leo Smith, Lake Biwa (Tzadik, 2004)
Wadada Leo Smith, Luminous Axis: The Caravans of Summer and Winter (Tzadik, 2002)
Wadada Leo Smith, Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik, 2001)
Wadada Leo Smith, Human Rights (Kabell Records, 1986)
Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, Eclipse (DVD, La Huit, 2005)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith

Pages 2, 4: Frank Rubolino

Page 3, Rhythm Unit and Pacifica Panel: Courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith

Page 5: Cees van de Ven

About Wadada Leo Smith
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