In the late Sixties, the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was a core figure in the Chicago avant-garde that vaulted the barriers of jazz and opened new horizons in composition and improvisation. It was the start of a protean career, though one little-known outside the artistic circles in which Smith, now 74, has been idolized.
Lately, the word has spread. In 2013, Smith’s four-and-a-half-hour, large-ensemble civil rights tribute, Ten Freedom Summers, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music. This year, he won a Doris Duke Artist Award, which carries generous multi-year funding. An exhibition of his “Ankhrasmation” scores — an alternative notation system he invented — first shown in Los Angeles, is now at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.
“It’s a multi-disciplinary renaissance period for him,” says pianist Vijay Iyer, a frequent collaborator who put out a duet album with Smith earlier this year.
Now Smith and his Golden Quintet have released America’s National Parks, a double album that celebrates both actual parks (Yosemite, Yellowstone, Sequoia) and the people and places Smith feels deserve equal reverence: the late musicologist Eileen Southern; New Orleans; the Mississippi River. The six songs, the longest a full half-hour, are open but carefully organized compositions that create ample space for group improvisation, textured by Ashley Walters’s cello and illuminated by Smith’s melodic trumpet phrases and long, patient notes.
America’s National Parks has an ecological motivation, sparked in part by Smith’s concern about commercial encroachment on parkland, and more deeply by his long attunement to the creative energy in the natural environment. Growing up in segregated Leland, Mississippi, he recalls watching the sun rise over the flat Delta fields; seeing rainstorms approach; walking to the creek. “These things let you know about space,” he tells me. “It opens you up to this natural, horizontal view.”
But the album also expresses a holistic idea of heritage that links land and people. Southern, for example, was a scholar of African-American music, the first black woman tenured at Harvard. “Artists have the privilege to name things,” Smith says. “Dr. Eileen Southern is an American literary park, and America will celebrate her from now on!”
Even when high-concept, Smith’s work has possessed a querying, mystical dimension, from his early days with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, when improvising artists followed the paths opened by John Coltrane, the spiritual seeker par excellence. Smith’s large discography (more than fifty albums as a leader or co-leader) bears the trace of his own journey, with projects carrying Rastafarian themes and, later, ones devoted to Sufism. But the core rubric of his late-career blossoming is America: the land, the project, the moment in history.
“I’ve moved into trying to document the psychological relationship that occurs with images, events, and people in America,” Smith says. “I feel America is at a tremendous crossroads, and every artist should think about how to look at this crossroads of conflict, balance, and harmony that’s existing right now.”
The release of Ten Freedom Summers four years ago launched this phase, though some of that album’s nineteen songs — which speak to such subjects as Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, Lyndon Johnson, and the concept of democracy — were initially written long before. Since then, Smith has addressed the Occupy protests on the orchestral-improvisation album Occupy the World (2013) and the ecology of the Great Lakes with the Great Lakes Suite (2014), a quartet with two old AACM pals, saxophonist Henry Threadgill and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist John Lindberg, a longtime Smith collaborator.
“I’m dealing with all of it — the ecological, political, historical elements,” Smith says. “But the key word that’s going to continue to come up is the psychological terrain.”
For all his intense ideas, Smith is a gentle presence, with a bushy beard, dreads, and a quick smile. He moved back to New Haven, Connecticut, where he lived in the Seventies, after retiring from the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts in 2013. Now he’s near his grandchildren, and the East Coast base makes it easier to travel to Europe on tour. He lives in an unassuming condo; on his dining table are the pens, paints, and brushes he uses to draw his Ankhrasmation scores. His music studio is upstairs.
Smith writes every day, no matter where he is. “I spend a lot of time inside the inspirational zone,” he says. “By observing people like Duke Ellington, or Bach, I’ve learned how to generate it myself. Ellington wrote something like 700 pieces when he was at the Cotton Club. That’s a lot when you’re working every night. But he learned to generate his own energy.” Smith says he has some 1,500 compositions in the pipeline.
His pieces combine standard notation with passages directed by his elegant and finely sketched Ankhrasmation panels, which contain a distinctive language of glyphs, lines, and colored fills that he teaches his collaborators, with concepts like “velocity units,” “rhythm units,” and color cues. Each image sets parameters and options for group improvisation.
“Wadada was always an innovator, doing things with his scores and notation system unlike anyone else,” says pianist Anthony Davis, who has played with Smith since the Seventies and appears on the new album. “As a performer, there’s room for you to create, and at the same time move the piece forward.”
As Smith turns his ideas to today’s big issues, he finds echoes of his Chicago days, when the avant-garde saw their innovations as social contributions, too — counterweights to the anxiety and conflict of the late civil rights era, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. “We felt it, and we talked about it,” he says. “In those moments of volatility and hatred, moments of balance were expressed through artists’ manifestations.”
As for the nation’s immediate prospects, Smith is looking beyond November. “The election is just the first stop of trying to figure out how to balance our country,” he says. “The course of our history in this country is: It will get better, but not resolve.”
America’s National Parks is out now on Cuneiform Records.