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Wadada Leo Smith: I'm A Dreamer

John Sharpe By

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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.


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