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.

Mbira/Redkoral Quartet

The next offerings focused on Smith's partnership with remarkable vocal and string artist Min Xiao Fen, playing on the pipa in a trio format with Smith and percussionist Pheeroan AkLaff. Written in reference to Billie Holiday, the selection titled "Dark Lady of the Sonnets" gave a glimpse of Smith's versatility. Fen brings to her performance a unique amalgamation of traditional Chinese folk vocal style and western traditions, as well as a phenomenal command of the pipa—a traditional four string Chinese instrument akin to the lute. In the hands of Fen, the instrument simultaneously evokes deep Chinese musical roots and utterly modernistic trajectories. This produces a particularly poignant sound, especially when combined with Smith's trumpet effusions and Aklaff's pointillist percussion. Like dancers swirling together over hot embers, the three players engaged in a constant ebb and flow, a pattern of tension and release that delved into the pathos and emotive capacities Holiday herself brought to the music.

Stepping from the stage, Smith continued to feature Fen, this time in partnership with the RedKoral Quartet. The Red Koral Quartet has become a central plank in Smith's oeuvre, and is comprised of violin, viola, and cello. Smith often utilizes strings, either composing specifically for string ensembles or incorporating string ensembles into larger works in combination with other instrumental groupings. In this case, the quartet performed a selection dedicated to the Civil Rights movement, "The Montgomery Bus Boycott: 381 Days: Fire," an excerpt from the forthcoming Rosa Parks Oratorio. The piece featured the explosive interaction between Fen's vocals and the quartets ability to alternate rapidly between sonorousness and eruptive cacophony. This alteration is a key attribute of Smith's music, expressing his view on the fluidity of time, and the manner in which key moments can simultaneously exist within a very concrete historical and political context, and also as emotive-psychological projections that cut across time and space.

RedKoral Quartet: String Theory

The next several selections continued to explore Smith's composition for strings, bringing forward the RedKoral Quartet to perform two cycles. The first titled "Ellingtonia/Reminiscing in Tempo" the second a series of four pieces referencing the powerful female figures Ma Rainey, Marian Anderson, Rosa Parks, and Angela Davis.

Like "Bus Boycott," and many of Smith's string pieces, the quartet selections continued to pit highly structured, melodic moments against bursts of energetic dissonances, often tossing themes between instruments or allowing one voice to explode in improvisatory eruptions while others pivoted to textural lines, rhythmic units, or long drawn-out tones. Smith also takes full advantage of the string instrument's ability to sustain tones over extended duration, as well as produce distinct glissando and other sonic/textural effects. These potentialities are well-suited to Smith's compositional division of sound into "long" and "short," and one of the more notable aspects of the two-day festival was the ability to hear such a large sampling of the quartet works placed in the greater context of Smith's corpus, and in a way that helps illustrate the applicability of Smith's compositional theories to multiple settings, including those without Smith playing at all.

The Golden Quintet: National Parks Part I

Smith returned to the stage, this time with his Golden Quintet, to close the first day with two excerpts from his America's National Parks suite, his latest multi-compositional opus. As a whole, the work spans enormous ground, drawing together meditations on America's most iconic natural wonders and postulating via pieces like "New Orleans: The National Cultural Park USA 1718," "Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park," and "The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River—a National Memorial Park c.5000BC," that the concept of honoring natural landscapes can also be applied to individuals and cultural phenomenon. More precisely, Smith utilizes common thematic properties to define the interconnectedness between natural beauty, individuals, and culture by documenting their shared place within the emotive-intellectual-spiritual-political complex.

For example, "New Orleans" is portrayed as cultural Ursprung, a volcanic rhythmic upheaval resulting in a grand fusion of musical genres. Throughout the piece, spirals of blues twined together around pulses of classical piano, while swells of strings broke to the surface, the entirety rooted in repeated, booming bass figures. Mirroring New Orleans cultural diffusion, the tendrils of these musical eruptions evolved into a myriad branches, all still traceable back to a primordial pulse and the discordance of multiple cultures embroiled in a cyclical surge of conflict and reinvention. The second selection "Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America—The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and its Ecosystem," offered its regaling trumpet calls into the voids of silence created by distantly spaced low and high piano chords. Then Aklaff's cymbals began to roil like winds between the peaks of these sound cliffs, and Ashley Walter's sonorous cello entered to evoke the park's curving streams and resplendent forests. Yet into these pastoral passages reemerged the repeated, deep bass figures from the previous piece, along with rhythmic units and piano lines that were the most overtly jazz-based of the evening, thus directly connecting the western landscape (the Spirit of America), with the cultural stream that began in New Orleans and has flowed into the many tributaries of American society until it has become carved into the bedrock of our collective identity.

With these pieces we find Smith approaching the emotive-intellectual-spiritual-political complex in a way that now thoroughly encompasses contemplation of the natural world as part of the humanistic drive for spiritual and cultural evolution, and therefore also part of the struggle against oppression and exploitation.

The Concert: Day Two

The second half of the concert opened with a singular event and welcome surprise. Wadada announced that he would perform four solo reflections on Thelonious Monk. Smith would later explain that his deepest ideas originate with Monk. Not ideas regarding musical language, but the idea of creation. Smith further revealed that until now he had never publicly played a Monk tune. The result proved one of the evenings most memorable.

As he explored the innovator who tore open the door of jazz to invite in the full range of its expressive potential, Smith exposed a very different facet of his artistry. He quickly displayed a remarkably subtle solo prowess, melodic capacity, and a firm command of the jazz-blues idiom. Ending with "Round About Midnight," Smith skewered the inevitable naysayers who often complain that "abstract" artists can't deliver when playing "straight." Smith successfully walked the tightrope between homage and individual interpretation that many fail to navigate when approaching such a piece of jazz cannon. His keening trumpet lines resurrected the original tune's tender despair, while his muted trumpet cries hearkened back to blues embryonic center, forming a sonic continuity with the earliest blues singers. For all the world sounding as if the ghost of Robert Johnson were wailing in duet with him, Smith delved into that unique form of sensual pleasure that only comes from the prolonged dissection of one's own lovelorn desolation. Again, despite the more traditionally structured approach, we find Smith putting forth a musical thesis that utilizes focus on an individual to express continuity across time, cultural evolution, and the seed of spiritual awakening that lies at the center of emotive-musical contemplation.

The Crystal Sextet

Shifting format yet again, Smith introduced the Crystal Sextet, made up of a viola quartet, trumpet, and electronics. Performing "Pacifica," the Sextet developed a soundscape of riotous upheavals punctuated by moments of sonorous escape, all produced by the interface between Smith's trumpet, Hardege's electronics, and the organic qualities that only strings can provide. A process of deconstruction and reconstruction, sections of traditional strings folded in upon themselves in a rapid oscillation between the extremes of discord and sonority, until like the hell bound soul racing between heat and cold the distinction between the two dissolved.

National Parks Part II

The concert concluded with the performance of the remaining five parts of the America's National Park suite. Beginning with "The Mississippi River" and ending with "Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells, and the Valley of Goodwill 1890," the musical journey once again explored the interconnectedness between natural beauty, individuals, and culture. Opening with a simple drum pattern and a sonorous string swell, the Mississippi River is depicted as primordial force, atrial cultural vein transmitting the spirit and people of New Orleans, propelling change, eroding barriers, forcing its contours inexorably upon the surrounding landscapes, with Lindberg's extended bass solo the appropriate portrait for the mighty river system.

The suite then shifted to a musical portrait of Eileen Jackson, the acclaimed musicologist, honored for her seminal scholarly work on black American music, and the first African-American female tenured professor at Harvard's College of Arts and Science. The suite then concluded with two almost operatic paeans to our diminishing natural heritage, "Sequoia/Kings National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave systems" and "Yosemite." Both compositions cascaded between radiant strings, dense plunges, and elegiac monuments to the grandeur of the natural world, a spiral of sound coming to a final rest with a return to the deep, reverberating bass drum, the whole operating as a reminder of the inescapable bonds between cultural, spiritual, and natural ecologies.


It was clear by the close of the two-day festival the intense thought that had gone into shaping the arch of music put forward. Far more than a showcase of the diversity and quality of Smith's corpus, the documentation of his over forty years of creativity became almost a new composition itself, a series of individual pieces, each bound to their own temporal moment, each complete in their individual thematic elements, and yet now embroidered together to express a deeper, expansive elucidation.

And only walking back—alone—in the aftermath did the realization come that the fullness of the music had begun and ended with the drum. That ineluctable core of Smith's musical-spiritual-cultural complex. The mystical, humanistic center. The heartbeat.

Photo credit: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen
Sheet Music Photos: Franz A. Matzner

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