Preview: Wadada Leo Smith brings world premiere of jazz suite
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2010 - Wadada Leo Smith has been playing music since the age of 13, when he began trying to play the blues music he heard growing up in Leland, Miss. After moving from drums and French horn to trumpet in high school, Smith honed his skills in the Army and later in R&B bands.
More than five decades later, Smith has established himself as one of the most acclaimed trumpeters and composers on the contemporary music scene. He was one of the early members of the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), formed in Chicago in 1967 to provide a support system for musicians performing and recording original music.
Smith has gone on to perform around the world, making more than 30 recordings as a leader of his own groups -- as well as appearing on groundbreaking releases by Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, John Zorn, Roscoe Mitchell and other pioneering artists.
He now teaches at California Institute of the Arts and was awarded a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in 2009, which helped fund recent compositions premiered at a performance of the Brooklyn Public Library in October. Earlier this year, Smith received a commission from Chamber Music America to compose, "Ten Freedom Summers," a suite in three movements inspired by the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s.
This Saturday, Nov. 13, Smith will lead his group, the Golden Quartet, in a New Music Circle concert that will feature world premiere performances of the "Ten Freedom Summers" suite at 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity, in University City.
As I learned during a recent conversation with Smith from his home in the Los Angeles area, he has performed in St. Louis before. But Saturday's performance at 560 Music Center marks the first time Smith has ever performed as a leader in the area.
"I did play in St. Louis years ago," recalls Smith. "The first time was actually in East St. Louis in the '60s when I was playing in Little Milton Campbell's band. Later, I performed with the AACM collective, when BAG (Black Artists Group) brought us down from Chicago to play. But this Saturday will be the first time I've had the chance to present my own music in St. Louis."
(BAG, a seminal group formed by St. Louis area musicians such as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett and others in 1968, was based on the AACM model. St. Louisan Lester Bowie, who moved to Chicago in 1966 with his wife, Fontella Bass, was a key factor in the link between the groups when he joined the AACM. For a detailed look at BAG's history, read Benjamin Looker's excellent book, "BAG 'Point From Which Creation Begins': the Black Artists Group of St. Louis.")
Over the years, Smith has created his own musical notation, one that reflects his unique perspective on both the balance of sound and silence within a composition, the way that individual musicians improvise independently within a work using distinctive rhythm units, and the overall notation framework -- which Smith has dubbed Ankhrasmation.
Although his approach to musical notation may seem abstract at first, Smith explains that his musical philosophy actually goes back to the blues, to the early jazz concept of collective improvisation -- and to the timeless balance of sound and silence, and the rhythms of nature.
"I'm positive that blues has had a profound effect on my music and the use of sound and silence," says Smith. "And blues is also key in terms of creating a larger emotional resonance. The cultural environment of growing up in Mississippi included people playing blues music individually on their porches. The basic structure of the blues -- a two-line lyrical statement followed by a question and resolution -- also includes dramatic pauses and silence. And that creates drama and emotion. And that emotion became even greater when blues musicians took the music to larger audiences."
Smith's concept of individual improvisation within an overall framework also harkens back to the collective improvisation approach taken by early jazz musicians at the turn of the century. However, Smith's approach takes that concept to a level that allows more input from the individual musicians -- while still building a unified, powerful musical statement.
The Golden Quartet concept is one he started in 2000 with a group that included drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Anthony Davis and bassist Malachi Favors Magoustous. After Magoustous passed away, the group evolved to its present lineup of Vijay Iyer on keyboards, John Lindberg on bass and drummer Pheeroan akLaff.
According to Smith, the lineup of musicians may have changed, but the basic musical concept behind the Quartet is the foundation that continues to make it a powerful creative outlet for the members.
"The concept of the group is what has made it grow," Smith says. "Vijay and John have been there over five years now. And even though we've changed drummers frequently -- with four different ones since they joined -- the core content has not only remained the same, it's actually expanded from the original level. No matter who is in the group, they are all great artists, and all of them lead their own groups and record as leaders. So they understand the principles that are the framework for the music. But they also are not inhibited about bringing their own creative ideas into it."
For Smith, the Golden Quartet is a format he wants to keep going for as long as he can continue to perform music.
"It's been a real joy to me," explains Smith. "Although I expect the band to be powerful and good, I'm always surprised and just have a real joy when that thought turns out to be true. When we all connect, the music sounds new and different. And that's the key. That's why we call it creative music. Everyone brings their own creativity to it."
Terry Perkins is a freelance journalist, who frequently writes about music.