In recognition of trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith’s 77th birthday, here’s the text of a long feature that I wrote about him for Downbeat last year in conjunction with his multiple “Critics Poll” victories as “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album”
Late last December, just after Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith turned 75, well before Downbeat’s critics anointed him “Best Trumpet,” “Best Artist” and “Best Album” for 2017, John Lindberg spoke about “the rare arc” that has brought his old friend to “arguably the most productive time of his career.”
“That Wadada has elevated so much in notoriety, recognition and output of work speaks to his endurance, determination and sheer grit, his complete dedication and focus on his work for 40 years,” said Lindberg, who first played with Smith in a creative orchestra concert in 1978, has played bass regularly with Smith’s Golden Quartet and Organic ensembles since 2004, as well as in a long-standing duo, documented in 2015 on Celestial Weather: Midwest Duets. “It’s a coronation of the idea that true art can rise up in its purity and be recognized.”
Smith detailed his work ethic at his midtown hotel on the morning of April 22, day five of a six-night, six-event residency at the Stone, John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue. Only two of the concerts overlapped with his CREATE Festival, an eight-set, Smith-curated event that transpired on April 7 and 8 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut, where Smith lived during the 1970s and returned to in 2013, when he retired after two decades on the faculty of the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts.
“The practice of making art has been my lifestyle,” Smith said. “I work the same way I worked when I taught school. Every day I get up at sunrise. I do my morning prayer. I have food and coffee or tea. I work until 11, 12 or 1 o’clock—another hour or so if I have a deadline. After that, I may visit my granddaughters and daughters. Then I come home. I cook my dinner. I watch a movie. I go to bed. I have no distortions or intrusions.
“I’ve always written a lot of music, on a scale that if I’d stopped writing ten years ago, I could still record for years. I’ve always been able to receive inspiration and transform it into scores, be they musical scores or literary scores. I read scores—opera scores, orchestral scores, string quartets—for my own satisfaction just like you’d read a novel. I’m looking for an intuitive, mystical connection with how those ideas came about—not with what they are. By doing that, you get a feeling for the decision as it was made, like when Shostakovich wrote that line where the strokes of the violin and various instruments in the quartet are only about dynamics.”
At CREATE Festival, Smith celebrated his Connecticut experiences. He presented a new score for saxophonist-flutist Dwight Andrews and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, both collaborators in New Dalta Akhri, the ensemble that Smith organized during his first New Haven stay, and members of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum, which Smith founded there on the model of Chicago’s AACM, which he himself joined in 1967. Pianist-composer Anthony Davis, a Yale freshman in 1970 when he heard Smith, who had just moved there from Chicago, play a duo concert with Marion Brown in 1970 (he first recorded with Smith on the self-released Reflectativity in 1974 with Wes Brown on bass, recontextualized for Tzadik in 2000 with Malachi Favors), joined the RedKoral String Quartet to play Smith’s “String Quartet No. 10.” Drummer Pheeroan akLaff, who recorded with Smith and Davis in 1976 on Song Of Humanity, performed with the Mbira Trio, with extended techniques flute master Robert Dick and pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen.
Smith also applied his 75-year-old chops to a solo recital mirroring his 2017 release Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM), and, both evenings, to repertoire from America’s National Parks (Cuneiform), the aforementioned Downbeat “Best Album,” on which cellist Ashley Waters, Smith’s one-time student at Cal Arts, joins Davis, Lindberg and akLaff, the core members of Smith’s Golden Quartet for the past decade.
DownBeat caught three concerts at the Stone, including an April 20 performance of “Pacifica” by the Crystal Sextet, on which four violists and electronicist Hardedge, prodded by Smith’s real-time instructions and exhortations, interpreted a graphic score depicting vertically stacked bands of color, progressively more opaque, representing how sunlight refracts in water as it penetrates to its depths. On April 22, Smith presented the kinetic, blues-infused suite, Najwa, using two guitarists (Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith, his 21-year-old grandson) rather than the four who perform on a new Bill Laswell-produced release of that name (TUM), along with akLaff, Hardedge and Laswell on electric bass.
On April 23, Smith concluded his run with “Lake Superior,” a 19-page score drawn from the six-part Great Lakes Suite (TUM), with Henry Threadgill, Lindberg and Jack DeJohnette. For this occasion, Smith convened alto saxophonist Jonathan Haffner, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who conjured a kaleidoscopic performance after a half-hour pre-concert runthrough. Smith played throughout like a man possessed, leaving it “all on the field” on his final declamation, during which he roared through the trumpet with the power and heat of a practitioner half his age. At one particularly intense moment, he stood on one foot. After another, he leaned against the wall behind him. He took periodic pauses to mop his brow.
When they were done, Smith lifted the score for the audience to see. “I changed this—right here, right now—several times,” he said. “I create this magnificent gray zone where no one knows what’s going on except me. I’m exploring the dimensions of creativity. It’s not written. It’s not thought about. Then they solve the equation. My heart feels pretty incredible.”
He moved to the center of the “bandstand.” “I played the hardest I can possibly play,” Smith said.
The comment mirrored Smith’s remarks the previous morning on the phenomenon of playing with such boldness and in-your-face presence at his age. “I play as strong as I’ve ever played—in some contexts, much stronger,” Smith declared, noting a 2½-octave range, “starting from the bottom octave, around the G or the F#, all the way up to the high F or E, and sometimes G.”
He continued: “That’s a physical and emotional artistic gift. It has nothing to do with the way I practice or conceptualize making music. There’s a lot of misconceptions about making art. One is that you have to practice every day, as hard as you can. Another is that you have to warm up for hours before you play. None of those myths exist for me. I’m not bound by the idea that something has to sound a certain way or be done a certain way. What’s important to me is that, when an inspiration comes, I allow myself to receive it and try to read it the best I can, without inhibition or blockage.”
Smith offered a recent example in New Haven. “I got cramps in both rib sides five minutes after I started playing with the Golden Quintet,” he said. “I decided, ‘Ok, we’re going to see who wins.’ I stretched, which relieved the sharpness, and when I started playing I bent a little lower and didn’t think about it until it was over. When I pick up the trumpet and step out to play, I’m oblivious to everything. Therefore, I play as hard as I can every moment. To make live music—to make art live—is one of the most heroic feelings in the world. You have the possibility and actuality of losing yourself inside that for an hour. It’s cleansing. It regenerates your body, your human condition, your mental and spiritual state.”
Apart from spiritual dimensions, Smith added, “the trumpet came natural to my physique and my intelligence” from almost the moment he started playing it at 12 in Leland, Mississippi. “A few weeks later, before I knew all the notes, I wrote my first piece—for three trumpets,” he said. “I started playing live at 13. That got me out of having to go to the cotton field. In high school I played three nights a week, sometimes four. Even if we drove 150 miles from the gig, I still went to school every day. I learned how to do what I had to do. Trumpet is a tubular instrument, and to play it, you have to understand what happens when its physicality doesn’t match yours. When there’s a breakdown, it becomes traumatic for most people, and they try to correct it. But when the trumpet denies me access, I accept whatever it gives me, play what’s possible at that moment, make something out of it. After I do that, I gain the greatest sense of confidence. I don’t ever worry about if my lips are sore. I’ve played probably four or five mouthpieces for as long as I’ve played the trumpet.
“My sound is authentically me, and it comes from here.” Smith touched his diaphragm and his heart. “It doesn’t come from a mouthpiece. It doesn’t even come from an instrument.”
Smith developed his mighty embouchure by playing and practicing outdoors, both in high school and during his 1962-1966 tenure as an Army musician. “Your sound doesn’t bounce off columns or four walls,” Smith said. “The projection level is just after the bell.” He held his hands about 6 inches apart. “Once it gets past the horn that far, you can hear it almost anywhere, a half-mile or a mile away if there’s no trees.”
Roy Hargrove, presented with “Crossing Sirat” from Smith’s 2009 album Spiritual Dimensions on a Blindfold Test last year, described Smith’s sound as “majestic.” In a separate conversation, Jonathan Finlayson called it “regal.” A more granular, metaphysical appreciation came from Laswell, whose second duo recording with Smith, Sacred Ceremonies, comes out this summer on his M.O.D. label, along with a Smith-Laswell-Milford Graves trio titled Ceremonies and Rituals and a Smith-Graves duo titled Baby Dodds in Congo Square. In each instance, Smith weaves in and out of the rhythm, juxtaposing sound and space with fluid rigor, signifying on the cool, simmering Laswell-engineered ambience with a lustrous, blue-flame tone that contrasts to his white-heat declamations the last two evenings at the Stone.
“He doesn’t do much high-register stuff, which you also find in people like Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Olu Dara,” said Laswell, who documented his first encounter with Smith on the 2014 CD Akashic Meditations (M.O.D.). “When he’s playing warmer tones in the mid-range and lower register, he catches this blues quality without the form. There’s some kind of force with a natural element, not just based on the music experience. Wadada’s been here long enough to accumulate these different feelings and elements and experiences about the human condition, and he’s pouring it back on the world. He plays rivers and lakes and mountains and fields. You don’t find that so much in music. That’s why people are responding.”
In akLaff’s view, Smith now plays with more sustained intensity than when he first entered his orbit. “I remember people writing about my playing the austere and spare music of Leo Smith, and it wasn’t necessarily laudatory,” akLaff said. “During his thirties and forties, Wadada had direct experience with the energy people were playing with during that period, which cannot be repeated. He chose not to get in the fray. You could say composition won out over braggadocio. Now, as a septugenarian, Wadada has that in his pocket, and he’s chosen to be uniquely outstanding with it.”
“Wadada always had this inimitable, immediately recognizable, wide sound with this incredible concept of using space and texture and color,” Lindberg said. “But if someone asked me which trumpet player is going to blow the roof off the place every night, he wouldn’t have jumped to mind at the top of the list. But ever since 2004, when I joined the version of the Golden Quartet with Ronald Shannon Jackson and Vijay Iyer, I cannot recall a performance where he hasn’t played really hard. I don’t think he can help himself.”
Smith’s “gray zone” reference after the April 23 concert illuminated his penchant for deploying micronic control of timbre to maneuver and shape the flow within the diverse instrumentations and contexts that he explores. “Wadada’s notation system seamlessly represents composed, fixed elements while allowing for the spontaneous innovation of the player to be embedded within it,” Davis said. “His music was always developed and multifaceted, taking us as performers on a journey through different structures, moods, settings and techniques. You always have to be on your toes, because the structure can change on a dime. You look at the whole score, not just your part—according to what Wadada plays, you might have to go to a different section. That keeps the music fresh; the composition is a living, breathing thing.”
Davis regards America’s National Parks as “a natural progression” from Smith’s epic Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), recorded in late 2011, with the Golden Quartet and a nine-piece chamber ensemble. Smith took as his subject pivotal events, themes and protagonists in the African-American struggle for civil rights over a 145-year timeline. “Ten Freedom Summers was more turbulent than this album, which emphasizes the more lyrical side of Wadada’s music and playing, and has a beautiful flow,” Davis said.
In 2015, Smith was looking for “another project that would make sense and give me the opportunity to showcase another aspect of my art,” when he received a copy of Ken Burns’ American National Parks documentary. “I wanted to expand the idea of national parks, and also not make them into cathedrals, sacred ground for some kind of religious endeavor, as Burns did,” Smith said. In his vision, New Orleans, which gestated “the first authentic music in America,” is a national cultural park; Dr. Eileen Southern, author of the comprehensive, pathbreaking Black Music in America, is a literary national park. “New Orleans and Dr. Southern are common property for everyone, just like Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite, that should be held in trust for every generation of Americans coming forward to participate in, appreciate and understand,” Smith said.
Lindberg related that in the process of conceptualizing and rehearsing Ten Freedom Summers, Smith engaged in “literal depictions and discussions about the events that inspired certain pieces.” Conversely, when conceiving America’s National Parks, Smith followed a process of metaphoric refraction. “I’m not trying to achieve musical portraits of a spot or a piece of land or a book,” he said. “Through meditation, reflection, contemplation and research, I profile these entities psychologically and aesthetically to give me deeper insight into what that particular something means.”
Although he didn’t say so explicitly, Smith follows that refractive m.o. in Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk, his fourth solo album, comprising four songs by Monk and four by Smith, among them an original titled “Mystery: Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium.” “I won’t resolve that mystery, but I’m fascinated to see how it’s taken,” Smith said of the implied narrative. He located his booklet note remarks on Monk on his iPhone, and read: In this life, I am closer to you than any other artist, not in the way you inform your music practice and ensemble intelligence, but in the way we calculate inspiration.
“I’m challenging the notion that Monk’s music is purely harmonic, saying it can be performed in multiple languages in a way believable to the listener,” Smith said. “I use melodic elements to evolve the solo passages. Some are composed as fragments, some as long extended lines. When I play through it, I spontaneously select from those composed melodic elements the portions that I need; what I select is based off what I played before, and also where I’m going from there.”
Where is Smith going as he progresses through the second half of his eighth decade? Among other things, he anticipates releasing another dozen or so completed albums, including his complete string and viola quartets, and a trio date with Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnette. Their release will likely generate further critical acclaim. He won’t turn it down.
“When I was a young, developing artist, my friends and associates in the AACM, and other independent artists whose viewpoints I respect, all thought of DownBeat as the most major component for this music,” Smith said. “DownBeat has covered this music for 80 years, and written about the major artists of our times. I’ve grown, of course, but I do the same thing I’ve done all along. I did it without wondering whether I’d ever get an award. So having Downbeat recognize in 2013 that I’m a composer of value with the Composer of the Year award for Ten Freedom Summers, and now Record of the Year, Artist Of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year—that’s like a grand slam, to use a baseball metaphor.”