Yo, Wadada! Leo Smith's Long Pilgrimage

Yo, Wadada! Leo Smith's Long Pilgrimage

by Howard Mandel

copyright © 2003 Howard Mandel

"When I went to Chicago in 1967 -- after five years in six Army bands -- I had already thought about what I wanted to do in music," says Wadada Leo Smith, the trumpeter, composer, and philosopher whose insightful, alternative vision of sound, spirit, and society is now, finally, gaining its fair share of attention. "I arrived with an armload of music for improvisers and also for contemporary ensembles. When I got there, very few people were doing those kinds of things. But immediately, when I opened up the bag and showed people what I had, things got roughed up. All around and straight across, you know."

All across, straight around, up and out or down and in, Mississippi-born and (as of last February) Mecca-bound Smith truly has remained consistent -- from the first recording of his own music, "The Bell," on Anthony Braxton's Three Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark) 35 years ago through the 2002 release by his Golden Quartet, The Year of the Elephant (Pi). This is far from saying he's always sounded the same, although Smith has an identifiable tone: larger, deeper, fuller and more burnished than one might justifiably expect from the physically slight and temperamentally self-contained man, now 63.He also possesses an articulated, detailedway with along gliss, and takes exceptional liberties with phrasing, resulting in unpredictably structured solos. Indeed, since emerging from the horn section of rhythm 'n' blues bands (such as the crack troupe that backed Little Milton Campbell on his Chess recordings) into the forefront of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and on to unusual success in academia, Smith has been a natural individualist and iconoclast, never going along with any crowd for the riches or the ride, seldom doing a thing that could be considered typical even among the atypical brethern of the avant garde.

The stepson of Delta bluesman Little Bill (Alex) Wallace, Smith rejected Little Milton's late '60s invitation to be the well-paid straw-boss of his road band because he didn't like to travel -- and instead flew off to Europe for a year with Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins and drummer Steve McCall (they recorded in Paris for BYG/Actuel). Upon his return to the States in 1970, instead of heading back to Chicago or throwing himself on New York (despite a successful Manhattan stand with Braxton, Jenkins, McCall, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and bassist Richard Davis as the Creative Construction Company, whose concerts were recorded on two LPS issued by Muse) Smith settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where he became mentor to a heretofore unknown black and tan coterie of experimentalists including pianist Anthony Davis, vibist Bobby Naughton, reedist Dwight Andrews, and bassist Wes Brown.

An early proponent of self-production, whose hard-to-find albums on his Kabell label are scheduled for re-release in a four CD box this spring by John Zorn's Tzadik imprint, Smith also recorded uncompromisingly for ECM, bringing together fellow trumpeters Lester Bowie and Kenny Wheeler on the album Divine Love. His timbral experiments have extended to one composition -- dedicated to Braxton -- for his trumpet and five harps (recorded on Spirit Catcher, Nessa). He's certainly the only Wesleyan University-trained ethnomusicologist, former Rastafarian and currently devout Muslim to have collaborated with British guitar phenomenologist Derek Bailey in Company, German bassist Peter Kovald and drummer Gunter Sommer in a trio of their own, and players including the late Glenn Horiuchi employing traditional Asian instruments in N'Da Kulture, a music/poetry group (Smith's wife Harumi recited in English and Japanese).

In the late '80s Wadada instituted what has become a de facto AACM chair of music instruction at New York's Bard College (currently held by drummer Thurman Barker), and since 1993 he's held the Dizzy Gillespie chair on the music faculty of California Institute of the Arts. No other African-American horn players of Smith's generation had the interest or gumption to revisit the early '70s electric repertoire of Miles Davis, as Smith did with Left Coast adventurers Henry Kaiser, Niles Cline, Lukas Ligeti, the ROVA Sax Quartet, Paul Plimley and John Medeski (among others) on the '98 two CD set Yo Miles!, and a still-unreleased third volume. No one but Smith would be able to assemble a Golden Quartet comprising Anthony Davis, bassist Malachi Favors, and drummer Jack DeJohnette -- all of whom live in different cities, and have enjoyed less total rehearsal time than they've spent in the studio, recording.

Quietly, for a brassman, Smith has pursued a single goal since, as he says, he first "picked up pen and trumpet, at the same time, to compose. I started to compose not knowing what note was there to be composed of. I was 12 yrs old." Smith's quest from then on has been to explore and explicate his personal esthetic principles, which circa 1977 he dubbed Ankhrasmation. Through what he describes as a simultaneously symbolic and systematic approach, Smith reconstrues the hierarchy of Western harmony, motion and melody as well as processes of composition and improvisation, much in the way Ornette Coleman has conceived of his own grand unification theory, harmolodics. Unfortunately, in our relatively brief though engaging and wide-ranging conversation, Smith demonstrated that Ankhrasmation, like harmolodics, eludes description or definition.

"Ankhrasmation music uses no pictures of notes, no designs of notes; it's a symbolic interpretation of what's there. It is a way of making music that has a little bit of both improvisation and composition inside it, but it's an entirely different thing because it's all symbolic," he explained. Or did he?

"I'm the guy that's the loner," Smith began over the phone from his home on the outskirts of Los Angeles. "I've always been a loner. I went to New Haven for the same reason. By that I mean: I spend my time contemplating how to do this [make music], and researching how to put it together. You can do that in a small or semi-rural town like I've been living in for the last 10 or 12 years. You can do those kinds of things and not be disturbed by going across the planet to play every gig that a human being might offer you. At first it may seem weird, you feel a little bit odd because you're not doing that, but once you start to research, once you start finding all these systems, these ways of looking at things and doing things in all these different contexts, the pleasure is there in not doing that."

The infrequency of Smith's personal appearances, along with the imperturbably personal quality of his recordings during the past 35 years, has lent the trumpeter an aura of mysterious charisma. He believes scarcity makes the ears grow more open; at least, so it seems to work between him and his fans.

"When my guys hear me once every year or every two or three years, they all come up to me and say, 'Wow, that was very different or very fresh; I haven't heard anything like that,'" Smith asserted with some pride. "And that tells me it was the right choice [not to globetrot], even though that wasn't my choice originally. It was forced on me by circumstance."

What circumstance was that?

"I couldn't buy a gig!" he burst out laughing. Can it really be that no one wanted to hire a musician who'd held his own with Kalaparusha Ara Difda, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, et al? "Well, I was always taught by people I respected that if one door doesn't open, you go to another door. That door I opened was research. And I'm telling you, that's the second best thing I did, other than picking up the trumpet and the pen."

To Smith, the trumpet, the pen, and music research were tools to use to shape the world more to his liking as far back as 1970. "When I was in Paris with Anthony Braxton, a foreigner in an exotic country -- well, that's nice sometimes, and I enjoyed it," he said. "But American music is a whole cultural phenomenon, not something that's created in a vacuum. And the cultural environment in the U.S. is deep.

"It was exciting at that time, how music interacted in a social way to exact change in society. Freedom is something we were after in both the social and esthetic moment. Musically, freedom served as a model for whoever could grasp it. Of course, socially we failed -- most obviously in the area of human rights, because power and wealth still control how people with with each other. Enron is an example of how the old type of culture has prevailed. But artists can use their visions to transform society by getting people to see ordinary stuff anew, and open up. The artist is a mediator who helps people see things in new ways, and can also serve as a moral visionary.

"Basically, human beings -- all of us including artists -- have such a problem every day of waking up and getting through the routines, getting by as safely as we can. When art comes into our lives, it can cause those routines to be seen as extraordinary, even though they don't change. They remain the same, but we see them in a different light because art comes from a place no one's ever been before.

"For example, when a writer writes about a tree or a character, that's an idea that's being translated into another medium. When the artist looks out of himself or herself and sees this other dimension that's actually old and that needs to be stirred up and made new again, they trigger some sort of reaction from the social spectrum, and that reaction becomes the dimension that the artist works in. It's like if I'm picking up garbage it's the same thing. I help to clean the environment, I help keep it clean from germs, and it actually affects the environement to have a good guy who picks up the garbage."

Smith believes such a "good guy" can be effective even if he or she has a fairly limited audience.

"Let me give you an example," he offered. "Take the early prophets. If you judge by the numbers of people they originally reached, many of them look like they were failures. But not so, because in the long run, their influence was accumulative. It had a long span to it. And all humanity is like that. The truth is that though we have different initiatives and different blood types, we're actually just one species, and our culture, our civilization is given in trust to us from each generation that that came before. So teachings are accumulative. Eventually those people that looked like they were actually failures because they had achieved very little in terms of numbers in their lifetimes, in the long run they come to look like they amount to a lot. Say Henry David Thoreau. Walden Pond may not look like much, but his writings inspires people all over the world, continuously."

What is Smith's Walden Pond? Yo Miles! is the album that probably reached his largest audience so far. On it, Smith knowingly applied himself to the most enduringly popular and inimitable of modern jazz's trumpet stylists -- evidently without any hesitation at all.

"I've been getting with the spirit of not actually caring about things because I've not had to care about them," he confided. "I've thought about them so I don't have to care about them. That means this: When I agreed to play Miles Davis music, Henry Kaiser sent me all kinds of tapes and CDs. Frankly, I listened casually to the CDs maybe once, because I'd heard them before and I didn't need to listen to them again. My thrust was to be creative in the studio. My intention wasn't to make a transcription of Miles Davis's music, my intention was to approach it in a fresh and much more open way than possibly Henry and the others did. Meaning that I didn't have to rely on the same kind of restrictions that they did. With that music, it was a joy to be in the studio, learn the piece, and then try to make it. What I did was a favor, and as a respect for Miles Davis, I tried to intertwine little moments of his music inside the music that I was doing. That's a kind of respect thing.

"You see, I'd listened to his music very carefully when I was coming up. Kind of Blue was one of the first records I had, and I listened to it very carefully, so I saw how he constructed his music, just like I also saw how other people like Booker Little and Clifford Brown constucted theirs. But their music was very different than Miles'. They had more of a vertical thing in their music. Miles had more of a horizontal thing. It was more akin to Louis Armstrong's discoveries."

Smith claimed that he, too, is a descendant of Pops.

"That's the thing everybody has missed in my music," he said. 'That doesn't mean I'm sounding like him but the deepest influence on me is the process of how the air thrust goes into the mouthpiece. Louis Armstrong had a very powerful air thrust, and so did Miles Davis, and so does Wadada Leo Smith. Very few people have that. That's what develops tone -- the difference between how your diaphragm is fixed, and how it projects or missiles the air through your chops through the mouthpiece. That's what I learned most from Louis Armstrong: How you use power and range and stamina. And the other part: the ability to execute very sharp and clear.

"You mentioned my interest in tone, timbre: That's that air thrust. It really is. The tone is a composite. and if the air thrust is mighty and powerful, it has a lot of elements that go into the composite. If it's a kind of a European tone -- and I don't mean that in any derogatory way, I mean that purely in terms of the way they make music, where it's done without any pressure -- a small part of the embouchure is used to make it. With big air thrust you have to use a wider area of your embouchure, so you have the option of great contrast and great flexibility.

"Don Cherry had a small air thrust, but what saved him and made him so beautiful was his ideas. Dizzy [Gillespie], he dissipated his composite, he put part of it in his cheeks, but the air thrust has to be like a missile. It can't go several directions then finally come to you; it has to come directly from the diaphram, straight up and straight out.

"Wynton [Marsalis] is a great trumpet player, a marvelous trumpet player, with a lot of European in him. He's learned to play jazz well, in a traditional form, just like he learned to play traditional classical music. Both of them are learned phenomena for him. I admire the fact he's done so well, musically. I'd say he's carved out some kind of legacy for himself in that context. I'd say he's akin to a European mind. He plays with almost a smile. If you look at Louis Amrstrong. Miles Davis and me, we ain't smiling when we're playing."

And yet, all three are in some sense having big fun. Making music their own ways, doing what they want.Despite Smith's glee in the project, purist devotees of the trumpeter may feel that Yo Miles! represents something of a co mpromise for their hero; that his originality is overwhelmed by the indelible associations of the compositions' original recordings and the highly amplified surroundings in which his horn is set. To Smith aficionados, his Golden Quartet's The Year of the Elephant better represents the man's simultaneously bold and mysterious essence. One can listen to it again and again, yet the music remains tantalizing, just beyond reach, challenging comprehension. Smith himself rejoices in theoverall achievement level of his Golden Quartet, debuted with an eponymous recording on Tzadik, having begun life as a drummerless trio also recorded on Tzadik.

"This band is dealing with my language," he exulted. "They come together to do that, and each makes a great contribution to do that and not really be dealing with their own concepts at all. That 's intentional, because when we made the band the idea was to have Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, to explore the things that I'm doing -- an experiment originally to see where it would go. It went someplace where it was not only pleasing but shattering for me. For the first time in 40 some years my music was played not only at the highest technical level but also at the most creative level. And so as a result of that, my 2003 New Year's resolution was to play more music, perform more often, with this band.

"One way to do that is to include a subsittute drummer sometimes . I mean, I'm so happy that this band plays my music on the level that it does, I don't want no other band. I've decided to keep the band together as long as I'm alive. But I use the Modern Jazz Quartet as a model, 'cause look, we've only been able to take like 40 per cent of the gigs we've been offered. Jack's busy, and we need a subsitute drummer sometimes."

Who does he have in mind?

"This will knock you out," Smith predicted. "Ronald Shannon Jackson. He's already approved the idea. He's living down in Texas, and that's beautiful, because none of us live in the same town, and I think that's the most ideal way to have a band. Then, when you come to a rehearsal, the musicians accept it as a higher calling, because they don't play together all the time. They also have a deep desire to not be the guy who let the band down. The respect is pretty high. The music that Shannon will bring in from his music , that will really be exciting. My dream for the next record is to have a couple pieces with Shannon on them, as well as pieces with Jack."

It's not that he has any desire to replace DeJohnette. "I met Jack in Chicago through Muha, the summer before I went to Paris," Smith remembered. " Muhal called me and said 'Jack DeJohnette is coming over, do you want to hang out with us?' And I said 'Yes.' He said, 'Bring your trumpet.' Which I was going to do anyway. I brought my trumpet. and we hung out and talked a little bit and then lo and behold we started playing. Jack taped it, by the way. And I'm telling you, it was the first time I played with a drummer who had a sensibility where I didn't feel like counting, I didn't have to feel like I was going to go this way or that way, everything came very naturally. And in the back of my head I started dreaming that I was going to play with this guy one day in the context of my music. We tried many times before the Golden Quartet happened. There were record companies that were so excited about us playing together they could hardly talk. ECM -- Manfred [Eicher] was so excited he didn't know what to do. But what ended up happenening was something would break down. Communications would break down. "

Not any more.

"Jack, he's the one in my Golden Quartet who hears everything very clearly," Smith said. "He'll listen when we're rehearsing, and if he hears something peculiar, he'll make a comment on it. He'll say, 'This point here, let's check this point out.' [Anthony] Davis, he started out at a very young age when he saw me on a street corner in New Haven and came up and said he knew who I was, could be play with me -- so he's at the roots of what's happening with the ban d. And Malachi, I've known him since Chicago. So we have a kind of organic organization in the Golden Quartet. We work everything out in rehearsal, but we've only had 10 hours of rehearsal, total."

Though he downplayed the effort, there was a lot to work out. "Pieces like 'Harumi' [from the Tzadik CD] and 'Piru' [on The Year of the Elephant] : all through my career I've had a great lyrical expression of what we would call slow pieces, but not ballads. Those two were without harmonic progression of any sort, they were all dependent on what came out and how the response or reaction occurred during those moments. Look at 'Harumi,' which came first: the way that's constructed is it has a harmonic progression to it, but it's not an absolute progression. in other words, it goes from one end to the next, but the player doesn't have to to play from one end to the next, because the player is often asked to make a new harmonic progression that interchanges with that old one that's right there, and also to ecclipse it entirely and go somewhere else. The four players can do this independently.

"Then the melody determines the reoccurence and renetrance of certain instruments. The melody shapes the horizontal motion, as opposed to a true concept of harmonic progression. And that's alway s been happening in my music, except now its more complex, I believe. I tell Davis that this is the harmonic progression that's laid out for the piece, you're free to play as much of it as you like, then create a new harmonic progression, just when you feel like that, or like eclipsing it all, and moving into something entirely different ."

Such free ideas seem like a long distance from Smith's childhood blues milieu.

"Let me tell you something about the blues," he corrected the impression. "Most people don't believe it when I tell them but it's true. If you know the great master John Lee Hooker, you know the blues is not rigid and it has no particular form. The blues is a n interchange between the one and the five [tonic an d dominant tones of the Western tempered scale], it's not a harmonic progression and it never was, and that's the freest phenomenon you could find. It's just tone, that's the only thing about it -- and I think that's a beautiful thing that it's tone, because that is generating, or connecting its unified point. To go back and forth from one to five could be boring, not exciting. But one who has the ideas and creative imagination to supply that space within the interchange, that person finds something unique. That's what the blues masters did. That's why they could make up those lyrics as they went along. They had the space to do it, it wasn't cluttered with this note of a progression, or that one. I draw on this idea of the blues all the time. The 'Miles Star' piece on The Year of the Elephant, that piece draws very much on blues, particularly its second movement after the ballad. "

Still: how does he find so many varieties with the blues, if it's all contained without the dominant-tonic field?

"Let me tell you what the guy at my first rehearsal with a blues band told me when I asked him about a key. They were playing and I asked him, 'What key are you in?' And the guy told me, 'I'm in the guitar key.' Then I went to the bass player and asked him what key he was in, and he said, 'I'm in the bass key.' So I figured I must be in the trumpet key, and I just started. What I'm trying to say is there's not much of a quantum leap at all beweeen blues and freedom. It's not unusual at all that Thelonious Monk played the blues when he was starting out, or that Albert Ayler came up in blues bands. The blues is a free kind of music. My best example is always John Lee Hooker. That guy played the blues as free as anybody I know. He wasn't really concerned if he made a chorus12 bars long or nine bars or 55 bars."

Smith admitted that touring his blues band . . . er, Golden Quartet .nbsp;. . might be difficult. "We're trying to focus on one or two performances as a hit, because the climate now is more conducive to that." But the trip uppermost in his mind was his imminent pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca.

"It's so exciting all I can do is wash dishes and cook and then take a little nap and do some praying and some reading and try to teach my school classes," he said. "It's one of the five pillars of Islam to go to Mecca. We've been taught the concept that going to Mecca is a rehearsal for Judgement Day. As you know, we usually face Mecca when we do our prayers, but when we're in the great mosque in Mecca everybody's praying in all directions. if you notice the title on my CD 'Al-Madinah,' that's the city of the prophet [Mohammed], and I'm going to visit there, and I'm going to visit the prophet's grave. And Land's End, that's the well everybody's going to wash in, do their abolutions befor their prayers, and also drink from for the human properties of it. it was discovered back in the time of Abraham, when Ishmael and Hagar, his Egyptian mother -- You kow that story? Okay.The year of the elephant, do you know that story?

"Well, someone had messed up the Christian temple in Yemen, so one of the great warriors in Yemen decided they were going to destroy the mosque in Mecca in return. They went there with a huge army including elephants, and one of the miracles that's told in the Koran is that birds flew over them with small pellets and dropped them on them and destroyed them. That's what 'the year of the elephant' means.

"It's almost perfect for me to be going there now that the CD is out. I've been telling them at Pi records to be getting those records into some of those countries in the middle east. Some of my brothers at the mosque have listened to it and said it's very meditative msic. I think that's a good mark. It's the joy and fulfillment of this hajj. I've made a lot of preparations musically and spiritually to make this journey."

This piece appeared as the cover feature of Signal2Noise Spring 2003 issue.

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