Wadada Leo Smith At Firehouse 12

Franz A. Matzner By

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Throughout all of Smith’s efforts, feeling flows into intellect and ideas pulse with emotive force.
Wadada Leo Smith
Firehouse 12 Create Festival
New Haven, Connecticut
April 8-9, 2017

It is rare to experience the arc of a prolific artist's work while they are still active, and in the case of Wadada Leo Smith, to witness it at the simultaneous height of creative power and reflective composure. That privilege was offered by a two-day series presented at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut. The event combined seminars and two days of musical presentation covering a sweeping body of work documenting Smith's compositional prowess in multiple settings, including quartets, trios, string quartets, and a rarity, solo trumpet.

Not explicitly billed as a "retrospective," the material covered was, however, clearly drawn from the full scope of Smith's career and articulated both its diversity and continuities. The intimacy of the venue and the supporting cast of daughters, grandchildren, and friends further shaped the event into a uniquely familial affair, providing a profound and inspirational setting that felt as much a participatory, collective journey as a traditional concert.

Smith's body of work originates in one of jazz's most fertile periods of experimentation—the late 1960s—and still owes conceptual allegiance to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians' (AACM) principles of creative freedom, boundlessness, and primacy of the artist as explorer. That historical context can provide listeners a useful grounding and access point to Smith's works, but should be viewed only as that. Smith's corpus is too individual, too vast in scope, and spans too great a timeline to be anchored by anything other than his own spiritual, intellectual, and musical evolution.

One of the most unique characteristics of Smiths' work is his ability to obliterate perceived divisions between emotive, intellectual, political, and creative discourse. When searching for an irreducible or stable element within his portfolio, that may be it. Throughout all of Smith's efforts, feeling flows into intellect and ideas pulse with emotive force. The psychological repercussions of political events reverberate, shaping cultural evolution. The personal becomes a product of history, history a product of personal interactions, and the commonality of these disparate elements is revealed via Smith's music to be the humanistic impulse.

This is why so much of Smith's work is devoted to portraits of individuals. This is not, however, a simple process of dedication. The figures chosen by Smith are both inspirations and vehicles for his greater exploration of the process of cultural evolution, the thesis that individuals and their actions are both conduits for and drivers of an incessant tension between the human impulse for individual expression, spiritual growth, and human rights, and the political impulse to suppress those same desires in the name of power and control.

In Smith's worldview, the seed of progress is always found in the individual, but the individual's power is only as a participant in the larger swell of spiritual and cultural expression. The individual has a place of primacy as an actor, but must act in concert with a nexus of forces that are beyond the self. The access point to that nexus is creative exploration of both interior and exterior spaces.

Toward a Musical Language of the Spirit

In order to pursue that exploration, Smith has evolved his own compositional language. Smith is not the only creative artist to investigate novel ways to codify musical expression. Pushing the boundaries of composition and notation was a fundamental part of the AACM's pursuit. It is also the case that other artists, scholars, and musicians have long commented upon the difficulty of notating the expressive properties of jazz and blues. Their bent notes, fluid rhythms, sonic textures, and non-standard approach to instrumental voicing are notoriously resistant to codification. At a minimum, they do not easily fit within the confines of classical western musical notation that was designed for very different purposes. Certainly, others have attempted to add additional layers of notation, symbols, or even descriptive language to that standard system in an attempt to expand its vocabulary. However, for the most part such efforts continued to try to bend the music to the existing notational system. In contrast, while building on earlier innovations, Smith goes much further in developing an alternative way to compose within a musical form that resists codification.

The core principle of Smith's system is the division of music into "long" and "short" sounds. The placement of "notes" into units of long and short emphasizes their temporal proportionality versus their tonal relationship. It also absolves the music of any metrical boundary. Further, Smith has created a set of "rhythm units" that are defined by the relative proportion of sound and silence between each "long" and "short" tone or grouping of tones. This again provides guidance on the dispersion of notes, without a strict definition of beat. Combined, these two features promote a fluid sense of time defined by how the musician (or ensemble) chooses to navigate the series of long-short units and rhythm units.

The fluidity of time is a crucial aspect of Smith's approach and deeply connected to his spiritual and artistic center. For example, Smith has explained that part of what art can do is elongate time, to explore the multidimensional reverberations that can result from even an isolated moment. The poignant example Smith gives for this phenomenon is his piece "Medgar Evers: A Love Voice of a Thousand Years Journey, Liberty and Justice was completed in 1977." Smith explains that the entire piece is about the moment Evers was shot and fell to the ground in front of his watching son. A span of mere seconds. Yet the musical depiction of the emotive, cultural, psychological, and political reverberations, as well as the historical echoes, of those seconds requires up to thirty minutes to perform.

A third important feature of Smith's language is the use of colors, shapes, and other visual elements to further expand notational possibilities and the ability to provide creative constraints for his ensembles to navigate. It is also important to recognize that Smith's system is still presented on standard musical staff, which grounds his compositions in that commonly understood structure.

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