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.

A final concept embedded in Smith's system is that silence is not simply the space between two sounds. Smith explains that individual moments of silence have distinct properties based on what comes before. Thus, an adept can carve silence, imbuing each moment with discrete qualities. Silence is no longer the absence of sound or meaning. Silence and sound now operate on equal terms. This is important not only because of its implications for musical expression and the codification of non-western traditions, but also because of the ramifications for accessing the mystical realms that underpin much of Smith's output. Disparate mystical schools place a common value on silence. Or, in many cases, the transition from sound to silence and back, usually initiated by a single tone or brief spasm of sound. Smith's semantic system suggests that silence alone is not the phenomena to consider, but the expression of a profound unity between sound and silence.

Together these compositional innovations provide a platform for the composer to guide the shape, structure, temporal velocity, and character of a composition, while maximizing the improvisational possibilities of how those elements are expressed. The system also suggests ways to compose for the aspects of jazz and blues that are most resistant to standard notation. Smith's process invites the free application of the techniques that jazz has evolved to individuate instrumentalist's voices in service of maximizing individual interpretation. This contrasts with the western notational system that was designed to maximize adherence to the composer's (presumed) intent by dictating the instrumentalist's approach as clearly as possible, with the effect of limiting individuation.

Understood in this context, Smith's endeavor represents in many ways the next logical step in the blending of western and African systems that first birthed jazz and then subsequently merged with modal and other non-western forms. Smith's central innovation is that instead of attempting to graft traditional Western notation onto the music, he founds his system in the sounds and compositional needs of the music. In effect, he has generated a language specifically designed to provide the maximum degree of flexibility, while maintaining the ability to compose long-form pieces with distinct character and structure. (As opposed to free improvisation or simple abstract sketches.)

It is perhaps no surprise that a dedicated improviser and composer would devise such a methodology. And understanding these principles can help the interpretation of Smith's work.

However, Smith has done more than build an individualized notational system. Smith's approach is driven by his devotion to mystical pursuit in the service of humanism. In that pursuit, Smith has not only established a potentially more accurate reflection of the diverse properties that distinguish jazz, blues, and non-western systems of music, he has also devised a powerful ontological tool. Said another way, Smith's language is specifically adapted to tap into those aspects of jazz and blues that access mystical properties, and enable that system to act as a platform to explore the nexus between music, culture, and mysticism.

The Concert: A Meditation

As noted above, the two-day concert in New Haven encompassed a wide range of settings and musical variety, with Smith continuously injecting explanatory commentary, illustrative stories, and humorous anecdotes, further inviting the audience into a participatory space, and balancing the often esoteric (some might say challenging) nature of his works with the human element—again reinforcing the humanistic principles lying at the core of Smith's work.

Lamar Smith Trio

The concert began without Wadada Leo Smith. Instead, the opening featured his grandson Lamar Smith's guitar trio. The presentation underscored the familial quality of the two-day festival, as well as the elder Smith's dedication to inclusivity and musical evolution. For his part, the younger Smith and his colleagues displayed an adroit style that departed significantly from his grandfather's material. The trio laced together their resonant guitar lines, while maintaining a steady, reverberating pulse that enveloped the piece in a dark, brooding atmosphere. Developed patiently, the guitars seemed to shape wind-carved, desolate soundscapes, almost architectural in their reliance on space and curvature. With their single piece, Smith's trio succeeded in capturing the audience's attention and defining a distinct, modern sound.

New Dalta Ahkri

Smith then began his own portion with a sample from his early career, a trio comprised of Smith on trumpet, Dwight Andrews on saxophone and flutes, and Bobby Naughton on vibraphone. The three first played together over forty years ago and the creative relationship was evident from first oblique note to the last trumpet call. The work presented also established early the consistency of Wadada's musical vision across decades of experimentation, revealing that even amidst the vast scope about to be displayed, there exists a remarkable continuity of themes and core concepts.

Titled "The Earth, a Blue Sanctuary of Translucent Light: Gardens of Fire-flowers, Underground Seas, and Pomegranate Lagoons," the selection documented one of those central themes -the connection between the natural environment and spiritual contemplation. Oriented around a series of monastic, bell-like tones on the vibraphone, the piece unfolded over elongated time with Smith and Andrews evoking the intonations of meditative bounty, their tones and silences falling like drops of black ink on a celestial canvass; the deeper tones of the bass clarinet mixing with the darting trumpet to form fireflies of delight swirling toward a base of depthless silence in a portraiture of our interconnectedness.

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