Wadada Leo Smith

The free jazz trumpeter discusses his new album, Spiritual Dimensions, featuring two discs from different ensembles


How did you get involved with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) back in the 1960s?

I’d been in the army and someone gave me (saxophonist) Anthony Braxton’s telephone number. When I went to Chicago I gave him a call and we hooked up and played some of Ornette Coleman’s pieces. Later, I was walking in my neighbourhood and I saw a sign that said Joseph Jarman’s ensemble is performing at this coffee house. I went and I met [saxist] Roscoe Mitchell and [trumpeter] Lester Bowie standing outside. Both of them had motorcycles and Lester was smoking a cigar and Roscoe was looking cool and shady. I go up and Roscoe said: ‘Hey man, why don’t you come to the AACM on Saturday? You should become a member.’ So that’s what I did.

The new album uses two ensembles, the long-running Golden Quintet on the first disc, and the guitar-led Organic on the second. The track ‘South Central LA Kulture’ bridges both discs. Is that deliberate?

Yes. In fact there are three recorded versions of that piece – the first is on the CD I did with Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfuno. I decided it would be a good time to show the difference between the two different bands playing the same piece. It’s about South Central LA – a suppressed area, mostly where black people live, with lots of helicopters and levels of crime. But the piece is not about that, it’s about the positive aspect of those neighbourhoods, where rhythm can define a better future.

You are known for developing your own composing language Ankhrasmation. Can you give an example of how this works on the disc?

The Quintet piece ‘Pacifica’ is an Ankhrasmation piece. Here everything is based around the level in which light penetrates into the ocean and each instrument symbolically represents those different levels. Around 25-30 per cent of the light is reflected off the water, so it’s only 70 per cent that penetrates. The key to performing it is understanding how well you can reference colour and shapes. For example, the ocean and the sky – light comes from sunlight in the sky, but for me when you reference the two it’s the same thing. We can’t see the colour in the ocean without the light from the sky and with the blue that you do see in the water, no matter how you dive into it, you don’t come to it. It’s a shifting type of reality that is fascinating to think about.

What got you interested in jazz in the first place?

BB King, Howlin’ Wolf – all these people came through my town [Leland, Mississippi] and would hang out with my [guitarist] step-father and I got to hear all that music. But my introduction to jazz came through TV. In the ’50s Louis Armstrong appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show almost twice a month and I saw that and got curious. I said: ‘Wow, what is this trumpet playing? I like that.’ I ordered four LPs – Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. That’s how that started.

Interview by Neil McKim

Wadada Leo Smith is playing at London’s Freedom of the City Festival at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, 2-3 May 2010



Audio clip: 'Pacifica' from Spiritual Dimensions






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