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Jazz meets Genji in 'Heart Reflections'
Peter Serafin - The Japan Times, 8. 3. 93

In the Western world certain literary classics, such as the work of Homer, Shakespeare and Greek mythology, provide bedrock touchstones for the entire culture. Everyone studies them in school. They're part of the body of knowledge that any educated person in the society would have at least a passing familiarity with. Sometimes modern stories are taken directly from those earlier classics as "Romeo and Juliet" begat "West Side Story." In Japan the Genji stories serve a similar function as literary and cultural benchmarks.

Wadada Leo Smith is an American jazz musician (trumpet , flugelhorn, bamboo flute, koto, percussion instruments) and musicologist who is currently adapting a classic story of the Heike and Genji people for a modern dramatic music composition. He was granted a three month fellowship by the Asian Cultural Council and came to Japan with the intention of finally writing this piece, one he'd been considering for the past 20 years. He has been a professor of music at several universities in the U.S. since 1975 and currently teaches at Bard College in New York State. Beginning next fall he will be joining the faculty of the Jazz and African American Music Program at the California Institute of the Arts as the first holder of the new Dizzy Gillespie Chair.

In addition, he has held lectureships and residencies at universities and institutions throughout the world. He has performed at quite a few international music festivals and concert venues (including Tokyo's Casals Hall and New York's Carnegie Hall) and has composed works for the stage, orchestra, solo performers and instrumental ensembles. He also won the Downbeat Magazine 28th Annual Jazz Critics Poll in the trumpet category in 1981.

He calls this new work "Heart Reflections,' a full - length composition for trumpet, shamisen, koto, drums, voice and dance. We had the opportunity to talk after a performance last week,in a small Yokohama jazz club.

"I call it 'creative world jazz,' he said about his music. "It represents a certain historical experience that Afro-Americans had in America, and as a result of that it has influenced the entire world. "

Right now this work-in-progress has its roots in jazz, but strives to incorporate that form into something more. The performance that night featured Leo on trumpet and koto, Michiro Sato on shamisen and Yoshizaburo Toyosumi on drums. In future versions it will be augmented with two dancers, as well as singers and poets who will sing and recite in a multitude of languages.

The entire performance that night was improvised, with the other players taking their cues from Leo's trumpet, but in the final piece .there will be a written score allowing for what he calls "symbological improvisation," different from either "structured" or "free" improvisation. He's also using nontraditional "free scales" to play the music.

My first impression was that the players that night were creating the soundtrack of some long-forgotten ritual. I was getting lost in the esoteric musical, theory of it all, so Leo attempted to clarify his ideas:

"I have been researching the great history of Noh and have found its tradition to be a profound vehicle for delivering a spiritual message of significant weight in that it offers, through the combining of dance, song, music and drama, a unique form expressing the realms of the supernatural and spirituality."

I asked him what he hoped to accomplish with the composition. "The purpose of music is to quiet man's soul so he self so he can hear what the higher self inside is talking about. That's what perfection is - it's not outside.

Leo hopes to complete the entire work by next month. It will debut in Japan next March with the full compliment of musicians, dancers, singers and poets for a full-length piece. He is currently seeking a few additional performers: a native speaker of one of the languages of the Indian subcontinent (he wants to juxtapose the sounds of that language with the Japanese and English in the piece), and a Zulu dancer to contrast those movements with those of the Japanese dancer.

For those who would like to see this work as it progresses, the performance schedule is: Tonight at Club Jamaica in Sapporo (a solo performance by Leo Smith (tel.-Oll-251-8412); Aug. 21 in Hiroshima and Aug. 22 in Shikoku (0462-32-2394); Aug. 31 at Yurakucho Asahi Hall in Tokyo and Sept. 3 at Shin Yokohama Station (03-3472-4679).


by Bob Ness

Downbeat Magazine 10 . 7. 76

At 35. Leo Smith is a trumpeter and composer who has been at the fore front of the New Creative music since 1967 when he joined forces with the influential and historically important AACM in Chicago. Early associations there with Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins,and Anthony Braxton have produced a number of recordings as well as those under his own leadership with his New Delta Ahkri ensemble. Currently, he is part of the new Anthony Braxton quartet, along with Dave Holland and Philip Wilson.

Smith is also the author of a small but dense book/pamphlet pointing towards a further comprehension of the music he and his colleagues create entitled Notes (8 Pieces) Source A New World Music: Creative Music. Published in 1973. and dedicated to "the pioneers of creative music in America ... [who liberated the performer to a creativity of direct deliverance of a creative
thought: music."

The book's contents, Smith emphasizes, "are very important to me in terms of my concepts and ambitions." In it he equates creative music with improvisation, meaning "that the Music is created at the moment it is performed, whether it is developing a given theme or is improvisation on a given rhythm or sound (Structures) or, in the purest form. when the improviser creates without any of these conditions, but creates at that moment. through his or her wit and imagination, an arrangement of silence and sound and rhythm that has never before been heard and will never again be heard."

This kind of meandering and closely argued thought is also found in Smith's conversation and it's delivered in a soft-spoken, almost down-home voice which always sounds very calm - almost sleepy. He lives in West Haven. Conn., an easy drive to the Eastern Music centers. but he grew up in a small country town called Leland. Miss. His stepfather was a blues man who played guitar. piano, drums, and sang throughout the Midwest and deep south. He can remember men like Little Milton, Elmore James. B. B. King and many other blues men of the Mississippi Delta region coming over to visit and to play in his family's living room.
There was also the radio. "In Leland. I used to listen to the radio and hear ail kinds of music - Harry James, Benny Goodman. and some fantastic pieces by Louis Armstrong who was always Spoken of as the greatest trumpet player in the world. I imagine that subconsciously played a strong part in my attraction towards the trumpet, but essentially I'm attracted to Music. It doesn't matter that much whether I play the trumpet or whatever, although I do love the sound of the trumpet and I know thoroughly the whole trumpet dynasty.

"I'm attracted to music and to being able to create ideas to use to influence physical. spiritual, and psychic changes, as well as materialistic changes in the lives of those I know and those I may never see. I want to be able to channel music back towards the tradition of the musician (which is what John Coltrane. Albert Ayler, the AACM, and others were about) as somebody who didn't just play an instrument and send out notes in a relationship called art. I want to get back to the first tradition of the creative musician. which was to be able to perform, heal, be a spokesman and leader in the community and to be able to channel ideas of influence over great distances and not be so centered on 'himself' and 'success'.

During junior high school Smith moved from mellophone to French horn to trumpet and he played in marching bands ("One of the strongest things I remember of the marching bands in the south is that they would play the marches as written and then improvise on them."), concert stage bands, and an 8-1 0 piece creative orchestra which played dance tunes, some original material, and a lot of Ellington pieces such as Mood Indigo, Take The A Train, and Jeep's Blues.

After high school. Smith traveled for about a year with groups playing blues, r&b, and soul music. He then went into the army for five years (he took a short discharge in order to get to Europe) and played in post bands in the south and in Italy and France, and was exposed to musicians from different backgrounds. He feels that the army experience was worth it ("even though I couldn't wait to get out from the first day I was in") because it gave him a chance to play every day and. "you had the time to sit and work on things, which is very important."

Just before he g of out of the army in 1966 a Sax player gave him Anthony Braxton's phone number in Chicago. Smith called him as soon as he got there in January. 1967 and eventually became part of the AACM, which is now in its 11th year and what Smith calls its third period.

"The AACM is one of the most thorough organizations in the world. I feet that it will be looked upon as one of the cornerstones of its type by future generations. So many people came together with so many different ideas and didn't feel threatened or inhibited, or felt they would be robbed of their ideas. It also operated at a very high learning level. The AACM, for us, was like an open forum and it gave everyone a chance to work in the solo a form, ensemble form, and orchestral form, and to develop these areas simultaneously. A very wide spectrum of creative energy was happening there.We had painting exhibits,theater, dance, poetry, plays, critical interpretations of the music, and
historical surveys of certain periods within the music.'

When Smith first came into the AACM, he Put together a trio with Braxton and Leroy Jenkins which was the basis for an ensemble that existed from late 1967 until early 1970. The association culminated in New York with Muse recordings under the
group name, Creative Construction Company, and
included Muhal Richard Abrams, Richard Davis,
and Steve McCall. Their music was not always
easily accepted and Smith remembers the big Belgian Festival during the summer of 1969 when the people "booed and threw chunks of mud and pop bottles on us. And our very last live performance
as the CCC in Paris in January of 1970 was a riot. It began during the first set and during the intermission the intensity increased so that when we came out to play the second set they cut us off and wouldn't let us play."

After the breakup of the CCC, Smith formed a group called Integral (with Henry Threadgill, Thurman Barker, and Lester Lashley) that lasted about six months and then he moved to Connecticut. "In late l970, I organized a group called the New Dalta Ahkri ('Ahkri' is a word representing a perfect union) and the idea behind it was to create music of totally different orders and to have these centers of activity fluctuate in terms of involvement, intensity, and contribution"

The group has gone through a few personnel changes and now includes Anthony Davis on piano, Wes Brown on bass and flute,their album Reflectivity is on Kabell), and in March of l975 saxophonist Oliver Lake became part of the group when he's not with his own ensemble. Percussionist Paul Maddox recently joined them to make it a quintet.'Every member of the group contributes in an entirely different way from each other, and this is true to an extreme.

Smith has mixed feelings about New York and living on the east coast. "New York actually refers not just to New York city but to the whole north-eastern circle.In a place of such commerciality there is a.lot of creative players and great musicianship, but I sometimes feel that they expose themselves in a mastership of craft rather than creatively. I think it's a good place to play and almost all of the great ideas occurred there, but the players, with a few exceptions, were not born there. The beautiful thing about living in the east is that you get credit for what you do and you get paid. In the Midwest and west you can play a lot but you're considered 'local.' That puts a vibration on the listener, the public, and they don't feel responsible to come out and hear. you.'

On the subject of critics and criticism Smith has definite views: I feel that any form of criticism is not positive.' 'Criticism' means: 'correction'- and that's impossible. I never have a 'bad night' because I don't accept the understanding of playing.
I consider whatever I play at whatever.time to be my absolute all. Most of the people writing in the jazz magazines are what I would call buffs. Instead of writing record reviews, creative journalists might better devote time to studying the various periods of the music and prepare expert analyses of the form, structure, and aesthetics of the music.

"Instead of going to a concert and criticizing this player or that, write a poem or a novel section on that experience like James Baldwin and Richard Wright have done. Although I like Martin Williams' book, The Jazz Tradition I don't think one white man should head an exploration into black music such as he is doing at the Smithsonian Institute. Instead. I think there should be a federation or panel of, say, seven people with three being black. one white person from America, one Japanese, one Englishman, and one from,somewhere else.".

Smith likes to think of the music and particularly of the players, historically, in terms of dynasties and of the different instruments, as royal families with clearly traceable lineages.

"I love all trumpet players and I love the way they play. I know the characteristics of the archetypal players and how the different lines came along..Trumpet playing came from Joseph Oliver. Louis Armstrong's early solos are identical in rhythmic shape and conceptualization to Oliver's. In Oliver's ballads, the trumpet player began to take dominance in the different lines that were hooked together to make the ensembles. Very shortly the ensemble begins to break down as the essential deliverer of the music. Armstrong is an innovator because he saw where this kind of playing could go and he did it, beginning with early pieces like Hot Potato, Weather Bird, and West End Blues."

Smith's own playing reflects this close scrutiny and historical awareness of what has gone on before him. And the deeper the listener's awareness, the more of these musical references he hears in Smith - to Miles, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Don Cherry, and to all the great players of the music, not just the trumpet players.

"I look at the music," Smith says,-"in the sense of a mission and I look upon traveling to other cities like the astronauts traveling in space, or in earlier times, like explorers traveling to other continents to discover what new places had to offer and also to spread their essential wisdom." db

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© 1997-2011 Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith