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Wadada Leo Smith: I'm A Dreamer

John Sharpe By

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Working in the UK

AAJ: I'd like to talk about working with UK musicians. Did you first come to London as part of one of Derek Bailey's Company weeks?

WLS: That was my first introduction here.

AAJ: Was that in about 1977?

WLS: Yes in the '70s. That was a great experience. I got a chance to meet a bunch of guys—Steve Lacy, I had met before, but I got a chance to play with him more and more. I had done a duet with him before then, but I got the chance to play with Steve Lacy who was a really fantastic guy. Beautiful man. Derek [Bailey], Tony Oxley and Johnny Dyani, and all those South African guys, though they wasn't playing in the event but they came. The first night I played there the South Africans came in a group. Every time I touched my horn or blew a note they would stomp and they would [makes trilling sounds]. Every time! It was explosive. I wrote about this in one of my CDs on TUM. But that initiation that they gave me on that Company event, some of the guys hated it, because they thought it was disruptive. But it was deeply African. They were really celebrating their brother from across the waters that they had missed for three hundred years. People don't know that. They were celebrating a reunion that you could not be a part of except if you know that tradition. That was quite an honor to tell you the truth. That whole thing brought me in contact with Evan Parker, and all the guys, [cellist] Tristan [Honsinger], and we could play with anybody we wanted to, so it made it really beautiful. Company was a great idea that really explored, I want to say, orchestration of different components as opposed to a grand idea. It was this notion of how do you orchestrate? All the ensembles were fixed either the night before or the day of the performance, who was going to play with who. It wasn't completely fixed by Derek, even though he would suggest a lot of them, but we also could suggest who we wanted to play with in addition. So all these things would be tagged up in the back as to which group we all have decided to play with. The beautiful thing was the notion of orchestrating different kinds of ensembles, as Anthony Braxton, me, and George Lewis, as we became part of Company in succession from the American school, all of us had experienced the idea of playing free and collective before—it wasn't new to us. But it was a grand experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went on that big tour that they got through the Arts Council, to Scotland and Wales, about a fifteen day tour. There was some great music but there wasn't really an audience in those places because it just wasn't cultivated at that time. But the camaraderie between the players and performers was just exciting.

AAJ: So you built connections from there. You mentioned the South Africans, is that when you first met Louis Moholo-Moholo? You've played several times with him recently.

WLS: Not in that context, but I have subsequently. I love Louis. In fact I wrote a piece for him, and for Johnny Dyani, that hasn't been recorded yet. The one for Louis, he recorded it and I'm waiting to record it myself.

AAJ: I heard about one of the Freedom of the City festival appearances where you did a trio with Louis Moholo and Steve Noble, and several people said that was one of the best things that they had ever heard. The BBC tried to record it but it didn't work.

WLS: It was tragic that they didn't get it. But that was fantastic. I would love to do that idea again. I think Louis is still living in South Africa, because he went back there, so it makes it much harder because it is a very long flight.

AAJ: He comes over for a small part of each year. In fact he was playing at the Vortex with Alexander Hawkins earlier this week.

WLS: It would be nice to see him. We have a great record on TUM [Ancestors (TUM Records, 2012)]. And we did four or five performances, in Spain, France and Portugal in the Azores. Unfortunately since the CD came out we've had people interested, but nobody has come up with a program for us, which I find pretty tragic. The thing that deters them is that it's a long flight from South Africa to here and you can't ask Louis to come all the way to play just one job. We need more. My flight from California is not as long, but it's still twelve hours or so. It makes it very difficult.

AAJ: You've become a regular visitor to London now, but was there anything between Company and now?

WLS: No, nothing. That's why last night I made the confession that last night was the first time I've presented my own project in the UK. That's almost 40 years.

AAJ: How did your return come about?

WLS: Well I started coming back because John [Chantler] at Cafe Oto would send me a note every once in a while saying that we would like for you to be in residence for two days. I thought about it and then I said, OK I'm going to be in Europe, I'll do it. I did the first one and I loved it because I could get any collection of musicians that I wanted. John Coxon [of Springheel Jack] became my buddy/co-producer because he knew all the musicians. Through email and talking on the telephone we would fix up all the ensembles. Because my thing was, if I'm going to do this residency, I would like to do at least two or three ensembles per night. So for the last residency I ended up doing three ensembles per night which means I get six different versions of this music out there each residency.

AAJ: So do you choose the musicians yourself?

WLS: John Coxon and I. John knows all the players. I'll ask about people. I asked for example about Lol Coxhill and he was part of it. And Tony Marsh.

AAJ: Had you already played with John Coxon in Springheel Jack?

WLS: Yes. In fact before Cafe Oto, John brought me here twice to play with Springheel. And I played in the Freedom of the City festival. So really my link has been John Coxon, who engineered my entrance here, and also Ten Freedom Summers. He's responsible for that as well. He's the one that pushed the idea to John at Oto.

AAJ: Just picking up on that, Oto is a great space and it has really built an audience.

WLS: It's a fantastic space and a great audience. They come to listen to the music.

AAJ: And the chance to witness a presentation like Ten Freedom Summers in that intimate space is amazing.

WLS: It is amazing. For us we always did it in big venues, where you are on a big stage and the audience is way out there. And then when it's over, a few people rush the stage and say hello, but at Oto many people come. I've seen them there before and they just come and start talking. It usually takes quite a while to get to the back because of the intimacy of it. We've never done Ten Freedom Summers like that so it was very attractive to think about.

AAJ: If you are working in those sorts of situations with musicians who are generally into free improvisation does that change your approach? Do you approach it differently?

WLS: No. Basically in each of the ensembles I become the connecting glue. The way in which it flows, I do it through my trumpet. I control it through the trumpet. I can also control it through just being there on stage. Because if you listen to all of the groups that I work with and you listen to them without me, it's a different music. So presence has something to do with it and the way I play also has something to do with it. I've had people come and tell me at Oto that they've heard these guys in similar constructions and they sound different. I don't say we are going to do anything. We get on stage and we do it. But I shape the way it makes it's curves and bends.

AAJ: And also the use of silence.

WLS: Exactly. That comes in as well because it's part of what I do. Somehow they end up being part of that as well. That tells you something about their creativity and ability to actually play the music with me in it. They make that adjustment, it's not just me, they also have to make it, and make it spontaneously. It's not figured out.

AAJ: Excellent. Thank you very much.

WLS: Thank you.

Selected Discography
Wadada Leo Smith & TUMO, Occupy The World
Wadada Leo Smith/Louis Moholo-Moholo, Ancestors (TUM 2012)
Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012)
Wadada Leo Smith's Organic, Heart's Reflection (Cuneiform, 2011)
Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2010)
Wadada Leo Smith/Jack DeJohnette, America (Tzadik, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Golden Quartet (Tzadik, 2000)
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith, Yo Miles! (Shanachie, 1998)
Leo Smith, Divine Love (ECM, 1978)
New Dalta Ahkri, Reflectativity (Kabell, 1974)

Photo Credit
Jesús Moreno


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