Wadada Leo Smith


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"Since 2007, I see America changing, becoming not a divided multi-cultural society, but a pluralistic cultural society where everybody has a chance. Creative music announced the change in the '60s, but the music had been democratic since New Orleans, with its collective improvisation., where the collective had value and every individual had equal value. This is a unique moment in this country's history, so now I call the music I make American music."

It is a momentary shock to hear such pronouncements from Wadada Leo Smith. The composer, multi-instrumentalist and philosopher/ educator has never shied away from the subject of race relations, but now, his assessment of the situation has changed. "It's obvious that over half of the population of this country is thinking about change—that's an overwhelmingly powerful number! Obama's election proves that structural racism can be erased and that every member of society can make a historic contribution."

To hear Smith speak, to chase after each fleet idea as he moves on to the next, is as exciting as following the trajectory of his own ceaselessly inventive contributions to music. In sound and in speech, his energy is boundless, informing each phrase with vitality and infectious vigor. Yet, as with only the greatest musicians, there is a unity to his achievements, a discernable path through myriad soundworlds he's created. Smith's vision is not that of a simple "all men are brothers" unity; rather, Coltrane's complex vision of unity, manifest most directly from Ascension onward, is a better model, not to mention the pioneering work of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Smith has been a member since 1966. However, even these models cannot encompass the totality of his vision, which is a product of his starkly individual approach to music making, in both the improvisational and compositional realms. As with Schoenberg's articulation of the Musical Idea, Smith believes that creation begins with an atomistic moment of inspiration. "If you allow memory to be stripped away, you realize the immense power of a single moment, which becomes the seed for all that follows. Then, through reflection, your experience as an artist will show you how to proceed."

Smith came to a form of this realization quite early; he began composing when he was 12, the day he got his trumpet. "I knew four notes," he now smiles and yet he remembers refusing to allow what he did not know to keep him from composing. "Tradition can kill you if you let it. A person does not need to know everything about a tradition to proceed. In fact, too much knowledge can inhibit individual growth. Look at Coltrane—he needed to change, because he was a transitional artist, but those changes were difficult for him because of his knowledge of the tradition. He proved that he could erase some of that knowledge so that the new creation could occur."

Smith's unique ideas concerning the many facets of an individual contribution were solidified, dramatically, when he joined the AACM. "You had to play in one of Muhal [Richard Abrams]'s groups and at some point during your first concert, all of the musicians would walk offstage and leave you up there by yourself. You'd hear them making comments about you as you play and this ritual was to dispel any fear of making an artistic statement. They'd drift back one by one, but not until you'd passed the test of making art."

Such a baptism by fire leaves its mark and Smith has spent his life honing the craft born of his initial artistic visions. With "The Bells," recorded in January of 1967, he began to craft his musical language, a multi-tiered notational and performative system called Ankhrasmation, about which he has written extensively. He developed a unique language that confronts issues of rhythm, the sound/silence dichotomy, velocity and improvisation using pictographic notation which, in combination with standard notation, allows the composer to dictate certain activities while retaining the artist's individual voice. The language was refined and expanded while Smith sojourned in Paris, exploring various world cultures and musics. The results of this research can be heard on Smith's first Kabell recording, a solo effort. A track such as "Creative Music 1" demonstrates the sound/silence relationships that are at the heart of early Ankhrasmation's construction.

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