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Wadada Leo Smith: I'm A Dreamer

John Sharpe By

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As dreamers go trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith lies at the more serious end of the spectrum. Not for him dreams that fade with the daylight, as evidenced by the realization of his epic Civil Rights inspired Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). Smith actually composed the first piece of what developed into a 21 piece magnum opus back in 1977, which demonstrates prodigious staying power to see it through to completion in 2012. Once released, the work generated remarkable acclaim for its tremendous scope, consistency of achievement and weighty emotional impact. Widely nominated in best of year lists, it is likely to remain pertinent for many years to come. As Thom Jurek said "it belongs in jazz's canonical lexicon with Duke Ellington's Black Brown & Beige and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite." By way of culmination to a fantastic year, Smith was a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in recognition of his work.

While Ten Freedom Summers might have made the headlines, behind it lies a significant body of work. Smith first came to prominence as one of a unique band of free thinkers brought together in Chicago's famous Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1968. After a sojourn in Paris, Smith settled in Connecticut where he gathered a group of adventurous young musicians around him in New Haven, co-founded a loose collective called the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum and also released a series of seminal albums on his own Kabell imprint. Since then he has, forged an iconoclastic path which has taken him around the world, including stints in Japan and Iceland, and amassed a discography of more than fifty albums as leader. In recent years he has become a frequent visitor to the UK, working with a diverse range of improvisers. But it's clear that he has no intention of resting on his laurels, and is still plotting the actualization of still more dreams. AllAboutJazz met Smith at his north London apartment during the European premiere of Ten Freedom Summers.

Chapter Index
Beginnings of Ten Freedom Summers
Inspirations behind the pieces
Capturing Ten Freedom Summers on record
Further Plans
The European Premiere
Working in the UK

Beginnings of Ten Freedom Summers

AllAboutJazz: I would like to talk to you about two particular areas: Ten Freedom Summers, and your interactions with British musicians. Since you were last interviewed for AllAboutJazz your 4CD album Ten Freedom Summers has been released to great acclaim, and now you are in London for the European premiere. Could you explain how that project came about and what it means to you?

Wadada Leo Smith: Well in the very beginning which was in 1977, the first piece that was composed was for Medgar Evers, and it was composed at the request of Leroy Jenkins who was a violinist. I've written a couple of other pieces for his ensembles and he liked the way I composed. He had this new ensemble with [pianist] Anthony Davis and [drummer] Andrew Cyrille, and he wanted a new piece from me to celebrate the beginning of that ensemble. So I had been thinking about the Civil Rights Movement and what it meant and how artists were able to participate in that activity, so I started with what was happening in my State. Medgar Evers had just been assassinated in Mississippi, so I started with him as the first person. That piece was written for a trio but after I started working on the large batch of Ten Freedom Summers, I expanded it to have a viola line, so it has harp, flute, percussion and viola. And our version here in London [with reduced instrumentation] will be violin playing the flute, piano playing the harp, viola, and drums and percussion. So that was the beginning.

AAJ: Did at that point you have the idea that it was going to become part of a larger work?

WLS: No. It was just one way of thinking about how you participate in this struggle for freedom and how hopefully at a later time in this journey, create a debate about the issues. That's basically what I was looking at at that time. And that became one of the main points of Ten Freedom Summers that it gave me a chance to look at those issues and hopefully afterwards people have a chance to think about this problem maybe in their own house or amongst their friends. Because it is not over. And not only is it not over, but it is not just the idea of race which is the biggest issue, but it has to do with sexism and economic captivity and all these things. NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] destroyed most of the economic centers of the planet and it did it in the same way in which these economic crises happened. Only a few people benefit from these things. So those issues are deeply tied up with civil rights and human rights and the social responsibility of people on the planet.

AAJ: At what point did you think you wanted to make a definitive statement about these issues?

WLS: The year two thousand. The reason was that I put together the Golden Quartet in 2000. It made its debut recording in 2000 [Golden Quartet (Tzadik, 2000)] with Jack DeJohnette, Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors. This is a quartet that looks traditional in terms of its instrumentation, but it was a means of looking at how you explore this music through a quartet, because I never did that type of quartet before. Our first performance was at the University of Georgia. They were trying to commission me for a piece, but the commission fell through. But I had just started taking a few notes on the Freedom Riders. So I did "The Freedom Riders Ride" even though I didn't get the commission for it, but I still did it. After that I started doing pieces regularly, not every month, but maybe one or two a year. Then perhaps six years ago I started asking for grants to complete it, and I got eight batches of money in a row to complete it. And I knew it was going to happen then.

AAJ: When you are looking at the individual pieces, what comes first? Is it the inspiration for the work, or is it a musical idea or some sort of interaction between the two?

WLS: Each of the pieces I have to do the research for them.

AAJ: Do you decide: Right I'm going to do a piece on say Lyndon Johnson?

WLS: Yes then I do the research. Exactly. But I don't have the music yet, I just have an idea it's going to be a piece not about, but with, Lyndon B. Johnson as the central part of it. And then I look at his career, and the most important thing that he did was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Then I go and do the research, and I began to be very enlightened, because you know a lot about this stuff just from the tradition of reading stuff in newspapers, but you don't know any of the background. So I found out that in 1957, Dwight David Eisenhower, president at that time, put forward a Civil Rights Bill. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Leader of the House. He got every southern guy to vote against it and most of the northern guys. He blocked it. Now what a piece of information. Here's a guy whose legacy is really the Voters Rights Act, because the Vietnamese War destroyed him. His Great Society was just a thing in name only if he didn't do the Civil Rights Act. He blocked it, then seven years later, he's President and he puts forward this Voters Rights Act, which really wasn't his, it was John Fitzgerald Kennedy's. He just changed the name from the New Frontier, which was Kennedy's idea of what he wanted to do. Johnson inherited all of that, he just put the name on it of the Great Society. It's the same program. How weird is that?

AAJ: There was an article earlier this week in the Guardian, suggesting that Kennedy's assassination was perhaps the best thing that could have happened in terms of Civil Rights, because Johnson came in and pushed it through, while if he had lived, Kennedy would not have been able to do that.

WLS: No he wouldn't have been able to do it, because Kennedy had so much opposition against him. When he finally did decide that American society had so many problems socially, he wanted to change it. Him and Bobby [his brother Robert F. Kennedy] was both converted. They came from the most powerful family in America and they also had an enormous amount of wealth. His father was into everything from Nazism to whatever. He came from a special family who had never witnessed any problems. And lo and behold they end up being the President and the Attorney General. Once they got there, they was actually not for any of this stuff. But eventually, every person that takes that office has to find something that's going to make them have a legacy, and they adopt whatever comes along. Now I believe that he changed, I sensed through Robert as well that both of them changed, because Kennedy was the first President to open up the debate about race in our society. He did it in his address to the nation about Civil Rights. The last five minutes or so of his speech was all improvised, it wasn't in the text. He made a strong appeal to the nation to open up our society as these rights were guaranteed by the Constitution. Five minutes after that speech was over, Medgar Evers was assassinated. So those two pieces are internally connected. Then six months later, he [Kennedy] was assassinated.

AAJ: So how does that research and understanding of the situation translate into music, as I know it is not programmatic or narrative.

WLS: It translates like this. My intention was to expose through the Ten Freedom Summers work the psychological effect that this movement had on America. So when I finally get the right balance of research and I'm beginning to be inspired, my effort then is to find one moment in that person's life or in that event and use that as a motivation to reflection and contemplation to decide how I'm going to make the piece. And that moment usually ends up being in the piece. Like with JFK, that piece is only about his body being taken from the Capitol to Arlington to the cemetery. It captures only that small frame. The piece on Medgar Evers is only about when he steps out of the car, and he's shot and he falls down, and the piece on Martin Luther King is about that Memphis Prophecy, the last speech that he gave where he says "I've been to the mountain top." You only normally see five to seven seconds of it, but it's seventeen minutes long—it's on You Tube—it's one of the most powerful speeches that he gave and it was all improvised. So it's about that. Then my March on Washington DC, I got commissioned during the fiftieth anniversary, I just gave the premier in DC three weeks ago, that piece is about the "I have a dream" speech.

Inspirations behind the pieces

AAJ: In terms of researching for this interview, I've found that there are several of the pieces where you've explained a bit about the inspiration which is either in other interviews or on the web, so I thought it might be interesting to ask you about some of the pieces which haven't been covered somewhere else. So I was thinking about the piece "America Parts 1, 2 and 3." Where does that come from?

WLS: That one comes from the 9/11 experience. I have two pieces in the program. One is directly about 9/11 and the other one, "America," is about that country and the transformation that occurred afterwards. People started drinking more. There were more altercations. People felt very much down. The school I teach in I saw it change drastically, where the kids would go to the bathroom and not flush the toilets or they would almost walk over you and not even speak to you. At my school which is a small private school, Cal Arts, they had racial incidents that occurred, all mysteriously, not confrontational. Like white kids destroying black kids art work and things like that. It had a very downward turn, and the middle piece of America, which is that really lyrical one, that's the one hoping for optimism. It represents, not in an inappropriate way but in a philosophical way, a different kind of turn, for optimism. And at the end of it that little solo phrase has a little Arabic turn in it that turns over and over. I put that in there distinctly to show that after this atrocity you've still got to accept these people who live in this country. Because a lot of the Muslims [in the USA] were attacked just randomly and they are still being done like that. So America is about that. But then there is another equation that is completely different, but represents the same thing. America, and I don't mean just the USA, I mean North, Central and South, that's the largest cultural sphere in the world, the most diverse. More diverse than Asia, Africa or Europe together. It has plant life, animal life, an abundance found nowhere else on the planet. So that piece also represents a dream of not the United States but America becoming a unified political, economic and cultural sphere. That's ultimately what it means.

AAJ: Fantastic to hear about such depth of ideas. Let me ask you about the others, then I have a reflection on that. "Rosa Parks"? What was the essential moment behind that piece?

WLS: Well the Montgomery Park bus boycott is the most successful boycott in the history of the world. What happened was that almost 100% participation. Everybody in that city just stopped riding the bus for 381 days. People who had African American women working in their house, they would come and pick them up, and they became their chauffeurs. Really. So many shoes were worn out during that 381 days, because people walked and walked and walked. And you would see cars stuffed with people, like you see in India, same thing. That's the historical connection. But the thing that triggered Rosa Parks, was that when she sat down on the bus and refused to give her seat up, people don't know that she had done that before. But this time they arrested her, and that sparked that fire. But before Martin Luther King came there, she was already fighting these things in all those stores and places. She was a very powerful activist. People often say, well if she hadn't been tired, maybe she would have got up. But that's not true. Because if you look at her history it shows that she had already begun to resist in the struggle. In fact she even wanted to meet force with force at some point. She was more radical than King and those guys.

AAJ: And how have you translated this into music?

WLS: The part where it comes through: now check this out, she was a beautiful lady. One that you'd look at in a photograph and you would fall in love, which is what I did. That theme of "Rosa Parks" is about her energy and activist stuff, but it also captures her beauty. That's what I went for, the way she looked in that photograph. So it's about her. Somebody has put together a video about her on You Tube and they've used my piece, and it's a fantastic video. The record company found it and they hadn't gotten permission. But when they started checking it out, they said this is fantastic and we are not going to do anything, just let it go.

AAJ: "September 11" if that's not too obvious a question?

WLS: It's about 9/11. The most crucial thing about it is that when it happened I was stunned like everybody else, and a lot of times it's difficult to talk about it. When you see those people jumping out of those windows, it busts you open. "September 11" is about that free fall of those people coming out of those windows. Because they selected not to die in a fire and when they came out, they didn't just fall out, they came out gracefully. It's almost like an aerial dance. So what I do is I make it ceremonial, that floating down, knowing that the moment you lift off, you only have a few seconds to live, but if you stay there you may have a few minutes to live. They chose the shortest journey. That to me is pretty courageous. And the other side of it is that all those thousands of people who were killed, and then the bombing of all those other countries, it's also about them as well. It's not just about America, it's a memorial for all of those people. Because in Iraq, they were not responsible for it at all. So all of those victims, in American and in the bombings anywhere, that's what "September 11" is about. And for us in performance it is very emotional.

AAJ: What about "Democracy"?

WLS: We played it last night [the first night of the European premier at Cafe Oto in London], just before "That Sunday Morning", that very fast chaotic piece where I had both the string quartet and the Golden Quartet, that was "Democracy." Democracy is a philosophical idea. It hasn't achieved any status or such anywhere on the planet, historically or now. The Americans talk about democracy and the Europeans, and they talk about a little bit of personal freedom and the ability to develop a little wealth to send their kids to school, but that's not what democracy is. Democracy is a fair exchange of creative ideas of all the people in that community, and that community should have the power to fix whatever is wrong in the people that represent them. But people don't have that power anywhere right now. So the reason "Democracy" is so chaotic in its execution is because nothing happens in these Congresses around the world except that the people there gain power and wealth. They become the richest people in our society all over the planet. And by their acquisition of wealth and power, they cannot possibly relate to the ordinary citizen. That's why they only relate to corporate power. They don't relate to us. So that chaos is about them and about the fact that that idea has to be combated by all kinds of differences, and if it survives it becomes an idea rather than just somebody's opinion. So that enaction of the chaotic stuff that's happening and all that fast stuff bouncing off each other, that's the formulation of the idea. And finally at the end when we all play together—[sings "bam bum beeng"]—there's four of them there—representing North, East, South and West. That represents that single idea that survived out of that chaotic experience to become law. And a law usually has a long history of development before it becomes effective. So we articulate the notion of that law being developed in these four different hemispheres. So "Democracy" is really talking about the world and its ability to be non-dysfunctional and rarely get a good idea through.

AAJ: "Buzzsaw"?

WLS: "Buzzsaw" is about this notion about a free press. There's a very famous book called Buzzsaw. It shows that powerful people, they control the press, not just because they have power and money. But if a book comes out that criticizes any part of their community and they don't like it, even though they don't own the company, they buy all the books from that company and store them in a warehouse and they buy the rights to it. And the book goes out of circulation. Let's say 5000 copies are out there, but not another single copy is coming out. And the news is fixed into an entertainment thing. Every station in America now they've got these little quizzy, quaint elements in the news, that they want you to feel good about, like a beautiful thing happened today in that five dogs and two elephants jumped a rope together or some shit. Then comes three sets of commercials, then they say we're coming up with this great something, then another commercial. Back and forth. That's not news. They are peddling products. But the baseline is that big publishers can block independent publishers by denying them access to distribution, so that this stuff doesn't become popular, and real beautiful information that our society needs worldwide, it doesn't get into the public. They feed us with these top ten books which are really just trivia about sex, money and power, which is really about them. So in "Buzzsaw" my real statement is that there is no free press. I don't mean that there is no independent press but that there is literally no free press. Some come close, but it's not there. For example we have a press in America, it's called Democracy Now. It's a very good show. But everyday now they fundraise. You can't watch it anymore. Because every time you see a little bit of news, they come with their fundraising, and it goes straight on through the day. They were independent, they were small, people were excited to watch. Now they got bigger. They have multiple programs going on, stuff they don't even need. So it means they've got more staff and they need more money, and they've got to fund raise forever. I used to give them money. I stopped. I stopped watching them. Yes they are independent, but they look for the same things as the other guys, they just have different methods.

AAJ: So this is a contextual piece which sets part of the framework that Civil Rights, human rights or whatever sits within?

WLS: Yes because what I want to do is create a debate about every aspect of our society. So my piece, "Dred Scott", that was about the first debate about race in America. People don't even know that. I mention Dred Scott in colleges or universities and nobody has ever heard of Dred Scott. And it's our history, I mean it's all of our histories, not just my history. They don't even know that he petitioned for his freedom as a slave, that he was one of the most famous human beings on the planet, as a slave, and was broke, with no freedom or nothing.

AAJ: Going back to "Buzzsaw," how does that translate into the musical context?

WLS: In "Buzzsaw" most of the construction is around the bass, and it's literally a translation of the buzzing into the bass. John [Lindberg] does it so well with the bow, so it's a literal translation that goes right into the music.

AAJ: The last piece I wanted to ask you about is "Little Rock Nine."

WLS: "Little Rock Nine" is only about that moment when Louis Armstrong called Dwight David Eisenhower and said "if you don't put troops out there to protect those kids going to that school, then I'll never do an ambassador tour for the United States again." Louis Armstrong was an activist who didn't go out and announce what he did. He changed a lot of things in America by just picking up the telephone, because he was powerful. And then the second context is about those kids when they walked through that mob to go into school. That's why things flow in there. And then there is that sharp figure—[sings]—that's that real anger that pops up, and the floating part is the calmness these kids show when they walk through that line. I met Terry Robinson who is one of the kids from that school. He came to the premiere in L.A. Many of the people who were part of the bus riders tradition came. I met young people, but I met old men and women, some black and some white, who were on those buses, and every one of them came crying. Because this piece celebrated them. It's a thorough celebration, not just a little bit, it's a complete celebration. And these people responded. When they found out about it they came. So "Little Rock Nine" is about that call Louis Armstrong made, and that horrible mob that these kids had to walk through every day. That's pretty incredible. I don't know who could stand that every day, but they did. They went through it and they got out of it. So if you really put it down in both instances—Louis Armstrong and those nine kids—that one is about courage.

AAJ: Coming back now to the reflection I mentioned earlier, you can obviously appreciate music just as music....

WLS: That's the beauty of art. Even if you don't see the connection, and you get in touch with the music, you are serving the same function as the person that does get the political, the social and the spiritual connection to it. It's the same experience, because ultimately music is just about vibration and stuff like that, and the only way that music represents any external object is when you associate it with it. And that association cannot be proven that it's not and it cannot be proven that it is. So it's either/or no matter how you look at it. So it's either about the 9/11 kids or not about that. But either way it makes the impact that's intended as a work of art.

AAJ: What I was wondering is that there are amazing depths and layers of information attached to the music, and for me it really enhances my appreciation. I think it is fantastic any way, but when I hear the stories and how that translates into music, it's like: "Wow!" It's mind blowing.

WLS: Please send people to my website. On there every event and every individual, there is a link to them. It takes hours to go through it and read. In fact you have to stop reading it, because one link leads to another, which leads to another, and another. But I generally recommend that a person checks that out at least once if they are going to hear Ten Freedom Summers on record or live performance. And do it over, let's say, a month. Go deeper than just the first link, maybe take the first two or three links. And if you've only got an hour that day, then next day or the next week, check out a little bit more, so you complete the whole journey. And so much information is provided. But like we are talking now, this is new information that is coming out, which people will be able to glean and put in their information tracks.

Capturing Ten Freedom Summers on record

AAJ: I have a question about the recording of Ten Freedom Summers. You have two drummers: Pheeroan AkLaff and Susie Ibarra. Sometimes one, sometimes the other and sometimes both. How did you make the choice?

WLS: Well the truth is that the choice was a forced choice. Pheeroan akLaff, like he does from time to time, like he did this time as well—he was supposed to be here [in London]—he sometimes gets his dates crossed. And that performance he got his dates crossed and before we knew it, he's going to be in Japan and we are going to be in L.A. So I had to get somebody else, so I got Susie. Susie played the premiere, all three nights, and she did such a great job. Pheeroan came back from Japan two days later and he already knows the music. So I had Susie and Pheeroan, and I think that each of them adds something different to the quality of the music and collectively they add a new niche. I had tried before with two drummers in the Golden Quartet, with Don Moye and Pheeroan.

AAJ: I saw that performance at the Vision Festival, which was later released as the first disc on Spiritual Reflections (Cuneiform, 2010).

WLS: And that worked well. But economically sometimes one extra person can knock the deal out. But I liked to have both of them on the recording and do individual pieces and collective pieces. Even in the same concept that 'Trane [John Coltrane] talked about—two drummers and they work well together—they expand the rhythmic platform and there are multiple corners at which things can be aimed at musically while you are playing. That's the biggest advantage of having eight components moving together. That recording was a miracle. Literally a miracle. The Chamber Ensemble, they took up the first two days of the recording. I wanted to definitely record them first, but I had no idea they would take up all of the time. So we did the first day just all them and the Golden Quartet, and the second day we did the other pieces with them. So we ended up on our portion with the Quartet after eight o'clock in the evening. We cleared the stage. We recorded in a nice large building. We got the stage set up again. We had to move the drums, because when we started testing there was too much bleed through. So we spent another hour or two trying to get that sorted. It was ten o'clock at night. We had been in there since nine o'clock that morning. So we tried a take. We would go and listen a little bit, and we couldn't hear the bass. Too much drums on this side or that side. So I take out my cell phone to see if we can find another studio. Because this is not a studio, this is just a performance hall, because we wanted to do it in there for the ambience of the sound. Ten o'clock at night, I can't find a studio. So we rearrange the stuff again and we do another take, and it's the same thing. It's distorted, there's stuff bleeding through everything. Now it's about eleven o'clock at night. I say, let's go to the hotel and we'll come back tomorrow morning at nine. I feel in my heart we are going to get this music but I couldn't guarantee you, because we don't have a single piece for the Golden Quartet recorded yet. Golden Quartet has thirteen pieces on that recording. What am I going to do? We go in, we have our food and go to bed. We get in there at nine o'clock. The guy has been there since seven or eight fixing up stuff. We do the first take. We listen to a little bit of it, just a tiny bit like maybe three minutes. Spot check it in a couple of places. It sounds fairly good, so we say we are going to go ahead. The first piece we recorded was "Dred Scott." So we've got a version now that maybe good. So from there on out we take this piece, record it. I ask on the microphone: "Did you get it?" He says yes. So we go onto the next piece. No listening. Did you get it? Yes. All of the other pieces were recorded without listening to them. I didn't know what we had or if we had it. But thank God the engineer did get it. Now that went on until twelve o'clock that night. We had one break. The last piece that was recorded on Ten Freedom Summers that night was "Rosa Parks." Listen to "Rosa Parks." We had to do two takes because everybody was literally tired and I had to be a coach, like a football coach, and I used that metaphor. I said listen guys, we are on the goal line. All we've got to do is have enough energy to fall across the line. And boom, we hit down. And we played "Rosa Parks" and it is one of the highlights on the record.

AAJ: Absolutely.

WLS: We've recorded that melody before, and that melody is just so unusual, the way that we played it. To do that at mid-night after fifteen hours! All that music is strong. So I declare that as a miracle. It was two months later that I found out that the engineer got it.

AAJ: That long?

WLS: Because I had to go away to perform. When I came back I got the files and I started to mix them. And that was the first time I heard it was there. It took eleven days to edit and seven days to mix it. And to master it took eight days. And the sound is fantastic. I was stunned.

AAJ: Especially for a big ensemble.

WLS: You can hear everything on it. But that is a miracle. We were blessed for that to come out.

AAJ: You must have been relieved when you found it had all been captured so well.

WLS: I was. I knew we had it.

AAJ: On the recording there is about four and a half hours of music, but when you perform the piece live it's billed as longer...

WLS: What happened is that on the recording we only recorded nineteen pieces. It was originally twenty one pieces. Two pieces we left off and now we have added four pieces to it. So now it should be eight, eight, eight [in each of the three collections comprising the entire work].

Further Plans

AAJ: Last night [the first night of the European premiere at Cafe Oto] you played "That Sunday Morning" which is a relatively new piece. Are there more ideas that you want to include?

WLS: There are more ideas. Those extra pieces, like "The March On Washington," the other string quartet piece, "That Sunday Morning," those extra pieces I'm going to put in a new work that I'm working on now, which is a piece directly about race. It will be a two hour performance. "Angela Davis" will be inserted into that piece. We did that with Organic several years ago. There will be a piece on Michael Jackson. Basically I'm looking at artists in this piece on race to talk about race. I'm using issues like the 2008 and 2012 voter rights suppression. It will be three ensembles: Golden Quartet, Pacifica Red Coral [Smith's own chamber ensemble] and Organic. It will have dancing and five young girls who will be doing some kind of singing and chanting. It's going to be a big piece as well, but only two hours so it can be played on a single day. And the premiere will have to occur in four cities in America back to back. Right now I don't know how I'm going to get $50,000 to do that. But, I'm going to do it.

It hits in L.A., it goes to Chicago, it goes to Houston and it goes to New York. That puts that cross [going from west to north to south to east] on it that I want to put on it. All within four weeks. And the reason we need a lot of money is that we are going to do it on a bus like the Freedom Riders. We're going to ride from each place, each weekend on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night depending on what we get, then the next concert will be on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. We are going to travel to the next destination, but on our way we are going to play in very small venues, just keep rehearsing and have the piece happen. So let's say in New Mexico, if they can get three or four thousand dollars for us to pop in and play, we'll do it. Or if somebody can give us a thousand dollars, we'll do it. Because all the money we get, we'll put it in a pot and distribute it evenly afterwards. Because a piece like that you don't have time to convince people about how important it is. I'm going to go to private individuals. Not through the web, because I think that's a tragedy. Every time you look up there's an email asking for money. I'm going to go to people that I know and I'm going to ask them to ask people that they know, to contribute $50 or $100 or whatever. So at some point we have enough money to rent that bus with two drivers and all of us can get in there and we can go and do these four dates.

AAJ: That sounds fantastic. I thought Ten Freedom Summers was something big but this is more.

WLS: I'm a dreamer.

AAJ: Has the widespread acclaim for Ten Freedom Summers made it easier for you to realize other projects?

WLS: It has yes. When you come up as a Pulitzer finalist in America, that's a big deal. There's only three people get there. And of the three finalists, any one of them can become the prizewinner. The Pulitzer was set up by writers and the Board that picks the winners has nothing to do with music. They are a big board of writers and executives, and they just I guarantee, toss a coin and say: "That one!" Because the Music Panel picks the music [finalists], but they won't let the Music Panel pick the winner.

AAJ: So it becomes a lottery by that stage.

WLS: A lottery. But to get to the final, that to me is big. The Pulitzer sends you this big embossed letter that is of the finest quality paper you ever want to see, and that's a prize within itself. Because the Pulitzer doesn't give a lot of money, but it's the prestige. From that many things open up. Right after the Pulitzer, I got ten performances of Ten Freedom Summers, with quartet and video artist, one day events, and stuff like that. But ten different things came up, just like that [snaps fingers], and they are still coming up.

AAJ That's great.

WLS: So it makes a difference for people to recognize the importance of a work.

The European Premiere

AAJ: To talk about the European premiere here in London, obviously the Ligeti Quartet has a different configuration compared to the nine piece South West Chamber Ensemble. How have you integrated them into the work?

WLS: Well, basically the Golden Quartet can play all twenty four pieces. It's not like the record, but it has all those elements in it. So that's the first thing that's important for me: if I can't get both ensembles, then the Golden Quartet can take all three days, just us. To have a string quartet in it gives that double ensemble quality to it, and makes it more thoroughly performed. And we've done that a number of times. But just recently in D.C. I added the timpanist to it, so now Pacifica Red Coral has a string quartet, a harp, and percussionist. The only thing I'm not going to add is the flute, the clarinetist and the other double bass, because I can get everything that we have here. From time to time Anthony Davis, this brilliant artist, like last night in "JFK" bless him, he played his part, the harp part, and the flute or the clarinet part. People don't know what a fantastic job he did, but he had to play all those parts, and he does it! Because when we do it as just a quartet he plays them all. So we've got everything covered right there. With the string quartet, as here, we don't have the harp, so he's playing the piano parts and the harp parts as well.

AAJ: So they are picking up the string quartet elements?

WLS: Exactly, but he's playing those other parts. So it's a full presentation of the musical sound of Ten Freedom Summers. We don't have those three other instruments, because now we've made it so we don't need them. The premiere it was important for it to be like that [the full ensemble], but after the premiere this piece don't ever need to be recorded again. It's fixed and it's set and it's a great achievement as an object. So the version I'm playing now, people are being exposed to the same version but from a new point of view.

AAJ: I've listened to the recording a lot, but last night I recognized some parts but there was a lot that was different.

WLS: There's lots of new parts. Like for example last night, nobody knew it because I don't decide what I'm going to do before I get on stage, in "Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs Board of Education" usually we go directly from the drum and trumpet intro into the theme of the piece, but last night we opened up that entrance completely and stayed there. And then in the latter part of it after the theme we opened it up again. Usually in the second part of it we do a collective, but I brought Anthony [Davis] and John [Lindberg] into it and as a trio explored that. That's how those pieces work live. They become blown up in a very different kind of way. The unique part of it is that the person who's come there to hear it live, they get a treat. If they have the CD, they get an extra treat, because they get this version and they've got the CD version. It's not a carbon copy from the CD. That's what being creative is about.

AAJ: So you are orchestrating on the spot?

WLS: On the spot, yes.

AAJ: And even the Golden Quartet don't necessarily know what's going to happen?

WLS: No nobody knows.

AAJ: You keep them on their toes.

WLS: Yes. In the Golden Quartet, John has been with me since he was nineteen. Anthony has been with me since he was eighteen. Anthony Brown is new. Jesse [Gilbert—video artist] has been with me fourteen years.

AAJ: So it's like family.

WLS: Like family. The interaction we see with images, Jesse and I started exploring those ideas ten years ago, and he had no idea he was going there. I could have told him but he wouldn't have listened to me. [laughs]. Jesse's history is that he plays clarinet, saxophones and ewe drumming. We're studying ideas and he comes in with these really diverse questions. And one day he called me and said I think I've got what it is. I went to a performance he did with a dancer and I see this stuff and said: "Wow!"

AAJ: It's great to have someone doing the visuals who has a musical background. Because many times you see the focus on the wrong thing because they don't have that awareness.

WLS: Exactly. Also the intellectual range that incorporates that material. All those images I don't select them. He does. He looks for them and selects them. So it means that the music and the images is a collaboration. But he doesn't put just any image up. He has to make it fit in the historical context and he has to make it work in the scheme of each piece.

AAJ: I assume that you've needed rehearsal time with the Ligeti Quartet?

WLS: We started rehearsing the day I got here. We rehearsed like five hours. And then the next night from seven to eleven. And yesterday we rehearsed before performing from about three to five. And we did some sound check stuff as well. All of this keeps adding to the mixture, making it possible to have the greatest possibility to present all this stuff. They are very fast and very courageous. They take the music to work on it. On Saturday they have scheduled themselves to have their own private rehearsal. So that shows what kind of ensemble that is. Originally [Cafe] Oto wanted to put together a string quartet from people they knew and I resisted that idea, because you cannot put together a string quartet to play this music. Or a band to play this music, that's not a standing band. Because to play the string parts they have to know how to bow together. You can't have one on a down stroke on the bow and another on an upstroke, because the sound is going to be different. So they have to work out the bowing pattern with each other. And in the nuance of playing together, if they haven't played together you can't develop that over the course of five or six rehearsals. You develop that over several years of playing. So it took them a while to get that in their head but I kept saying that if you can't find a string quartet we will do it just as the Golden Quartet and video, but I would prefer to have it with the string quartet and harp. But they couldn't get the harp. If I'd known that in time enough, I would have found a harp. But the Ligeti Quartet is a standing ensemble that plays together and they've already told me that they are going to add some of the string quartets to their repertoire. They are quality players and they listen very well and they are able to pick up information really fast.

AAJ: And they improvise as well. Has that meant that you've been able to push them a bit more?

WLS: Yes. Like for example in "Democracy" I heard them improvise and I knew during the rehearsal that I was going to include them. So I turned to them and said: "Number four." And boom. They had to improvise because they hadn't got no music in front of them. And they do it and it comes out fine. I left them and the piano. That was fantastic man. Those things, you can't rehearse them. They have to come in because of how you are feeling about the music. I'm like the chef. All the spices are there and all the things to make something beautiful happen. So I'm deciding on the spur of the moment how many drops of pepper to put in there. I can't decide before, because if I do it's not going to work. And the performance lifts me too. I'm inspired. I hear stuff that needs to be added here or over there. I'm hearing it now so I need to put it in now. I can't figure it out beforehand. So having an ensemble that plays together and has skills of improvising together makes it possible for them to play Ten Freedom Summers. Because any string quartet could not play it. The New York string quartet looked at two of my string quartets and they declined to play them. They inquired if they could play them but when they saw what was there they didn't think they could do it. Now they are a great ensemble, they have a long powerful history. They should have talked to me, but they didn't. If they had talked to me I would have put them at ease and told them that they could play it. All they've got to do is just trust me and themselves.

AAJ: Do you have the pieces in conventional notation?

WLS: They are not conventional. They are non-metrical. The full ensemble score is in view at all times. Not parts, because parts you can't see what other people are doing, and since there is no counting you cannot possibly know what the other person is playing or when they come in. So it's visual and it's a journey where you have to resist counting and traditional ways of representing those lines. So you've got notes there but it's far from that idea where you say:1, 2... I'm mostly cueing what I do, I'm not counting.

AAJ: It's very obvious when observing the performance that you are very hands on, always adjusting and changing.

WLS: Right, right.

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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