Courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith
CHAT WITH WADADA LEO SMITH
jazz denotes an idiom and has little to do with freedom. John Litweiler's
The Freedom Principle chronicles how Leo Smith, born in Leland, Mississippi,
a hub for the blues, entered into the service (outspoken of racial conditions
in the army), discovered Don Cherry, moved to Chicago, joined the AACM,
and developed into a standard for lyrical contrasts and space. And although
the word "jazz" has not aged well, perhaps there is hope in
the masters like Smith (unedited and in his own words), progressively
propelling the music forward, preventing "jazz" from becoming
JUNG: How influential has the Association for the Advancement of Creative
Musicians (AACM) been to the annals of improvised music?
LEO SMITH: Well, I think it is one of those milestones, where people can
not only look back and see that there was a conscious effort to try to
control part of the industry, at least the most important parts of it,
like creativity and economics. It showed for the first time that you could
actually set up a structure in which artists could work in without losing
faith and breaking down into some kind of non-communicative zone, which
happens to most organizations after seven or eight years. They get lost.
The AACM has stood the test of time. It has overcome all of its challenges
from inside and outside. It is still a golden idea that could be perfected
because it is not perfect.
FJ: You played with Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins in a short-lived
trio, the Creative Construction Company.
LEO SMITH: That came one day after being in the AACM and knowing Braxton.
Braxton said that we should get together and play. At the time, he was
living in what was called the Musicians Building in Chicago. A lot of
people lived there that played music. So Leroy Jenkins didn't live far
from there and I lived on the near North Side and so we gathered there
on Saturday or Sunday afternoons and started playing this music. It sounded
so good that we agreed to make a trio out of it that same day. That is
how that trio came out. As you know, Fred, when we went to Europe a little
bit later, Steve McCall became part of us.
FJ: And the relationship with Braxton has continued for the better part
of four decades.
LEO SMITH: That is one of the qualities of the AACM. Once you have some
kind of intimate musical relationship with one of these guys or women,
you have a commitment as an AACM person to really keep that connection
and make that music.
FJ: Serendipitously, you studied at Wesleyan, where Braxton would later
become a member of the faculty.
LEO SMITH: That is right, in the world music department. I was looking
for confirmation and corroboration of ideas and certain kinds of notions
about music. Wesleyan was the perfect place. It had a good world music
department. It had people there from Bali, from Ghana. The head of the
music school was teaching Native American music and cultural performance
traditions. So it was a good place to go.
Rastafari was recorded twenty years ago for the Sackville label. Boxholder
has since reissued the session, co-lead by Bill Smith.
LEO SMITH: It is extremely fresh because systemic music, music of systems,
they have a chance to be fresh and new depending on the quality of ideas
of the beholder. So it is based around the notion of language being the
carrier of information as opposed to styles and attitudes and the way
that it has been traditionally constructed. If you have a structure, a
systemic base or something, for example, paint, a particular color has
a numeric number that represents it symbolically. That same symbolic number
for other types of color also are there. So you have this range of transfer
of information where it becomes kind of like a language. That keeps it
fresh. I know that is a new and very different way to look at it. The
idea or notion that this is a system in which one can construct new and
creative ideas about how the universe looks presents that freshness.
FJ: During much of the Seventies and early Eighties, you produced music
on your own label, Kabell. As a member of the AACM, you had recording
opportunities, why did you develop Kabell?
LEO SMITH: I started it primarily for documentation purposes. That was
the initial thrust of it. That meant that if I felt that I had something
a little bit different that I reached or achieved in the music, I would
try to go in the studio and record it and place it for sale in a context
where there wouldn't be too many middle people. It was a nice way of trying
to show your music in a noncommercial way. It showed what paths you were
traveling through. A little bit later, I got the idea of trying to make
it much grander and approached different people about making a Kabell
series, but most of them were uninterested in that idea. I did four records
and one cassette.
FJ: Those recordings are being reissued by Tzadik as part of a box set.
LEO SMITH: Yes, in fact, it is coming out very soon. It will be out in
September. It is a four-CD set. There is new material on there. There
is new solo material that I did. There is another series of tapes that
have been transferred for this new box set release that Wes Brown, Anthony
Davis, and I did, the original trio, the New Dalta Ahkri trio. That is
pretty exciting. There is at least forty or sixty minutes of that music
that was recorded a year after the original Reflectativity came out. It
is the missing link out of the first original New Dalta Ahkri music and
it is going to be in that box set.
FJ: The Golden Quartet featuring Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors, and Jack
DeJohnette has releases on both the Tzadik and Pi labels. Will it continue?
LEO SMITH: It is difficult, but the difficulty is within the capacity
of our schedules. There is quite a bit of resistance against this band
by organizers. Not by fans because the record sales are good and not by
critics because the critics have given us a resounding support. It has
been sold out every time we've played, whether on a festival in Europe,
or a college gig, or in Central Park. Not only has it been sold out, but
when that band hits the stage, people are excited. It has been very difficult
because when you have a quartet like there where everybody has been successful
on some level, it is not a cheap ensemble. That is the first thing. Secondly,
it seems like there is a difficulty in perception. I have had many people
like yourself ask why the band doesn't come out here. It doesn't come
out because we've not been offered anything here where there is enough
money to do that.
FJ: Conversely, would the quartet be willing to take less just to play
LEO SMITH: We would take less. We have a range when it comes to doing
work in America. What we do is, if the money is palpable, we can do fundraising.
That is how we can do something like that. We are trying to do it this
way. We are not trying to play in cheap venues. We are trying to play
in venues where we can actually make an impact and show that this music,
acoustical music, can actually draw by the power of its creativity.
FJ: Organic Resonance is your latest on the Pi label, a duo recording
LEO SMITH: It was a live recording, but was recorded very well. It is
a good mix and was an exciting evening, both performances were.
FJ: And the future?
LEO SMITH: I am performing in New York at Tonic with John Zorn. We're
doing a duet for his 50th birthday celebration. The Golden Quartet is
going to play in New York on December 13. I can tell you one thing, Fred,
that is going to happen next year in February. I have invited Anthony
Braxton out to do my Creative Music Festival and he is going to do both
days of it, one day on campus, Friday, and then Saturday in the new Disney
building downtown. It will be a festival of his music. It will be a complete
program of his music. We've made the call for musicians up the coast to
come and form a creative orchestra for him. This will be the fourth year
of the festival. The first three years was dedicated to collaborations.
As of this year, we are starting a new series that deals with one or two
artists that do the whole festival. Hopefully, next year, it will be James
Newton and Anthony Davis together. I am inviting really creative artists,
who think systemically to come and study with me.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is Wang Chunging tonight. Comments?