Welcome back. Our guest this week on the show is Wadada Leo Smith, trumpeter, music theorist, and composer. Over his many years, he’s pioneered his own musical notation system, helped popularize and contextualize Miles Davis’s electric period, and has played with a wide set of collaborators including Bill Frisell, Pauline Oliveros, John Zorn, Vijay Iyer, Anthony Braxton, and many more. In December, he’s turning 80, and TUM Records is celebrating with a year-long slate of releases. Up first, on May 21st, Sacred Ceremonies, a three volume set, featuring Wadada in a duo setting with Milford Graves, a duo setting with Bill Laswell, and a trio with the both of them. He joined us to discuss his long career, Miles Davis, sacred wanderings, Civil Rights, and much more.
Show playlist: Wadada Leo Smith & Milford Graves, “Poetic Sonics” ++ Wadada Leo Smith, “Tastalun”
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Thanks for listening. Transmissions is written, produced, and hosted by Jason Woodbury. Our audio is edited by Andrew Horton. Visual work by Sarah Goldstein and Jonathan Mark Walls. Our executive producer and top of the show announcer is Aquarium Drunkard founder Justin Gage. Tune into his weekly radio program, the long running, long celebrated Aquarium Drunkard Show, every Wednesday on Sirius XMU, channel 35, at 7 PM Pacific time.
We’ll be back next week, joined by guitarist and singer Sarah Louise to get far out and drifty in celebration of her great new album Earth Bow. If you can’t wait that long, check out the archives—there’s plenty more to hear there, including a previous talk with Sarah, so you can get caught up before our all-new conversation.
Aquarium Drunkard: Thanks so much for taking the time to join me here on Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions. It’s a real honor to have you here.
Wadada Leo Smith: I’m honored to be here.
AD: For your 80th birthday the label TUM Records is going to be putting out a series of recordings featuring you solo, but also in configurations with longtime collaborators like Bill Laswell and the great Milford Graves. I was curious, ahead of your 80th birthday, if we could start off by discussing where you’ve arrived at in terms of your music. In other words, what do you think you understand about your creative process at 80 that you didn’t understand, say, 10 years ago?
Wadada Leo Smith: Let’s say it this way: I’m 79 and the year long celebration—we start the year off and go all the way through. I have plans for a release on my birthday which is December 18th, nobody knows about that one. When you look back over your artistic career, you’re able to understand something about who you are. I found out quite a while back for example when Tzadik released the big box set of my other stuff. I forget what it was called but Tzadik released a four or five CD set of my stuff.
AD: Of the early stuff that you put on your own label Kabell?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes, yes. So what happened is that was probably 20 years ago or so. At that time I did a kind of a reflection on what it was I was thinking of at that time and since that was the earliest music, with Creative Music 1 and all that stuff in there, what I realized was that I was right. My whole attitude, the approach, my sincerity, my ability to actually achieve what I was going after. At that early stage, in the 1970s, I was right. And when you’re right from that stage you take a little bit of another step backwards and I glimpse back to the age of 12 years old, which is when I wrote my first piece of music. At the age of 12, I got a piece of music paper, and a pencil, and I started writing my first composition. I didn’t ask none of the teachers at the school to show me how to write music. I discovered by writing music how to write music. I discovered that while I’m engaged in how to learn something new or navigate another space I’ve never been in, you gain the most precise assurity of confidence. Therefore, you are not afraid to look into the dark and pull out gems.
AD: So when you say that you listened back to that early stuff and you got the sense that you were right, what do you mean you were right about? Do you mean that your intention even then was sort of a similar one to what it is now?
Wadada Leo Smith: I mean that the whole creative process is very similar to skydiving. Meaning you have the inspiration to do it. In music, or in art, the inspiration comes into you. But in skydiving you have to have the courage first of all to want to skydive, to fly in the plane, and then the nerves to jump out and not just go to the ground but kind of zoom into the sky. That’s something about not just courage but that you have this skill and ability to achieve what you want to do and that’s what I mean by I was right. My inspiration was right, my willingness to trust my intuitive self and trust my ability to actually achieve what I started out to do. It wasn’t something that I attempted to do and failed. I felt that I achieved the moment I started doing it
AD: That’s beautiful. Before we move on to a few other thoughts, have you ever gone skydiving?
Wadada Leo Smith: I have not gone skydiving. I wanted to at a younger age. I understand that the old man George W. Bush, on his 90th or 80th birthday, he did a parachute jump.
AD: Well there you go, so who knows.
Wadada Leo Smith: So it’s out there. [Laughs]
AD: Well you’ve worked with so many collaborators, so many great players. I could spend the rest of the episode listing them but I won’t. What qualities do you look for in a collaborator? What’s the chief quality, maybe?
Wadada Leo Smith: The primary quality is the moment you make the first note and the collaborator makes their first moment in the music, you know immediately whether this is going to be successful or not. Just the very first instance. What am I looking for? I’m looking for if I can achieve my center of gravity and allow my inspiration to flow immediately and that it does not inhibit the other player, and their flow of inspiration doesn’t inhibit me. So what I’m looking for is that kind of spiritual chemistry—that kind of balance that immediately jells. Because if you have to work to make it work, the work becomes working. But if you don’t have to work to make it work then it becomes a creative journey. And everybody, the two of us, or the three of us, whoever the collaboration is, can make it work.
AD: You’re very comfortable talking about music on a spiritual level from what I’ve read. That’s the lens that you view it through, correct.
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes that’s one of the major lens because I believe that a sound heard anywhere in the universe—or now, anywhere in creation—influences creation, whether anybody know about it or not. Spiritually, what that tells me is that everything and everyone and every object is all connected and that these connections bear certain kinds of fruits that are either good for all, the main populace, Earth’s population, or it’s not good. I strive to find that positive zone in spirituality that makes it work for everybody.
Because you have to remember that spirituality is a little bit larger than philosophical inquiries or religious inquiries. Because philosophical inquiry is kind of an elitist approach to life and is done in a wing of inquiry that doesn’t involve ordinary people. But it’s about ordinary people, you see? Whereas religion it engages so much into the cultural parameter of life that it creates a lot of confusions amongst various kinds of beliefs when in fact all the beliefs are kind of aiming for one possibility: to uplift the person.
AD: Did you find, as you have throughout your life practiced various faith traditions, Rastafarianism, Muslim…
Wadada Leo Smith: Islam, yes.
AD: …Did you find for you that they were different paths to a same sort of destination?
Wadada Leo Smith: They are all the same path to the same destination, it’s just that the routing is different and it goes through these prisms of cultural restrictions and cultural taboos and things like that, which might have been fine. What I did in terms of my journey, I always leaned towards the spiritual components of the religion and therefore I didn’t get cluttered into what was happening.
AD: The dogma or that side of things?
Wadada Leo Smith: The mystical quality which has all of it in there but is captured in precise experience. Like for example in Islam is Sufism. In Christianity; it’s certain kinds of Christian ideas about Christ. There’s a very famous book…I can’t remember the name now. It’s a book about Christ but it’s a mystical book. It’s the most beautiful text. Same with Sufism. You find these spiritual contents put in the context of poetry, and then practice in the context of actually remembering God…
AD: Did you grow up in a particular religious faith?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes, yes. I was Baptist and Presbyterian and all of those other kinds of “isms” across that until I read into Rastafari and then I would do that tradition. Then I felt myself looking again. I found myself looking towards a lot of different forms from Buddhism to Hindu, all kinds of other kinds of religious contexts, and finally I settled on Islam. And that gave me a different view because of the canonical prayers where you have to do them five times a day. And that’s just the minimum that’s not even the basic, that’s just the minimum, so it kind of pushes you towards that. So shortly after engaging in Islam I immediately got in touch with a sheikh in California and became his student of Sufism. I’m still a student of Sufism.
AD: So that draw to the mystic side of things…you talked about a certain oneness and that that sort of is accessible through music. Do you feel that in its own way playing and writing music is also sort of a religious practice?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yeah it’s a spiritual practice because what you’re doing is you are making small miniature creations just like the Almighty made. Not as powerful, doesn’t have the same kind of impact, But amongst humans, art has the same kind of force as the creative force did in the very beginning. I do my research and look to see how prophets and how saints and sheikhs and spiritual people understand the world, all of them understand it through inspiration. In Islam in Christianity, in Judaism, all of them. The things that we have received, that have been handed down to us, has all been through inspiration. I like to say that every single thing on the planet, on this Earth, came from inspiration. It’s all natural, from a brick, to a concrete wall, to a tree that buds a leaf, and a flower that blooms. They all have that same presence on inspiration.
AD: I think about how an object, like a chair. I think there’s a David Lynch quote like, “A chair started off as an idea and then it became a chair,” and that’s beautiful.
Wadada Leo Smith: And everything else did like that you see. Because a chair didn’t make itself. Inspiration gave that to somebody, the idea to make that chair. And so what we get down to is that the same practice in which spiritual icons like prophets and people like that receive the information, artists receive the same thing it’s just not about the same kind of language, it’s the artistic language. It comes through, it’s coming through you instantly. It flows in and all the way out through the trumpet or through the pen or through the voice through whatever we’re using to magnify that idea.
AD: And you work through all of the mediums that you just mentioned as a player as a teacher as a writer as a theorist. Does it all feel like its coming from the same place basically?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yeah it’s coming from the same place. You see unification is really a very powerful principle. You see your family is the first model of unification. You look at the community and that’s the next largest one, you look at the city, the state, then the nation and then the planet. You see all these models show that unification is the most preferred engagement.
AD: Obviously, you’re known as a trumpeter. I wanted to start off by asking you about a different instrument. You’ve also collaborated with so many great guitarists. You did a great project with Deerhoof recently. You’ve worked with Bill Frisell, Henry Kaiser, all these different people. You really helped popularize Miles Davis’ electric work at a time when it wasn’t held in as much esteem as it is now. Going all the way back to your youth in Mississippi, you played with Little Milton right? That was some of your earliest stuff?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes, Little Milton was one of the young men that was mentored by my stepfather and I got to know him really well. I played in his band when I first went to Chicago in 1967. I’d drive in to see him. Every time Milton came to town, I would either play with him in Chicago and the surrounding areas, like Indiana and those close to Milwaukee. Or I would go on tour with him for two weeks at a time. I could do that because like I said my stepfather was his mentor. He was like family and I was like family with him.
AD: So you were already interested in ideas of creative music and you were also playing…
Wadada Leo Smith: All of it, blues, rock, whatever. Because you see when the inspiration into comes to you it doesn’t have a name or say this is a blues line. It comes in as creative energy and that manipulation with whatever you do whatever stage you’re on whether it be a rock stage or a blues stage, it pops out.
AD: Do you feel like people get too hung up on what something is?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes. Yeah.
AD: That seems to be a little bit of a long standing frustration for you. When people get so concerned with the boxes that something belongs in, what do you think they’re missing out on?
Wadada Leo Smith: I think basically all boxes are about power. Power gives people what they think is an advantage. Knowing that, having an idea that say Roscoe Mitchell plays free jazz and Anthony Braxton plays free bebop or some stuff, OK, they feel empowered with that little piece of information. The moment Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton steps on stage all of those boxes explode. Then once they explode, the person loses power and then losing power, they cannot connect at that point. And that’s why the preconditions of all elements, whether it’s about statistics or any other kind of discipline of study, if you presuppose how it should be you are going to be disappointed. So the best way to experience art is to allow it to develop and engage it and see what that engagement produces for you. Never judging it, because when you judge it, that’s also about power. Because the experience never leaves you. It becomes part of your conscious and subconscious reality. It never leaves you. Even though you might say well I didn’t like that at all, it doesn’t matter because it’s already a part of you.
AD: In a world where we sometimes have to hear music that we don’t necessarily want to hear or didn’t choose to hear how do you think about that sense of art entering us—do you feel like it can be difficult to have a relationship with the sounds around us when we live in, frankly, a very noisy existence? Maybe over the last year it hasn’t been as noisy, but if you’re standing on the corner and someone drives up with their car window down, how could that experience, what kind of impressions could you share about a moment like that?
Wadada Leo Smith: Well that moment is one of those Charles Ives moments. Charles Ives was a composer who grew up in New England when they had marching bands that would be barging from this block to that block and in the interaction of those bands or the steeple in the churches, one over here and one over there banging and it would kind of create this kind of a symphonic relationship in a community that’s about the size of Bryant Park in Chicago. What it does in that case of passing the car and the guy on the bike that has riled up the motor and the song is moving past you as you move along, you experience that just like you would a shooting star. You know that it came from somewhere and then it went and you experience it. And it’s good for us that we did experience the shooting star, all that is supposed to be community of passing sound and structure. But no one sits in that for 30 min or 40 minutes or an hour and a half just paying attention to it. Therefore it does become like a shooting star. But all of it embraces us. Even that moment. That moment still embraces us and lets us know that “Hey you’re alive you experience something that is actually intruding in the moment and you’re gonna survive it,” which is cool.
AD: That’s a beautiful way to think about it.
Wadada Leo Smith: Even if you think about an elevator. When you’re going up an elevator, you know your destination. You know that that elevator is going to be one floor, or six floors, or twenty floors, and that music is just going to last that long. And then coming down, it’s the same thing, you see?
AD: Let’s go back a little bit to the Miles Davis electric era. Were you listening to those records his…
Wadada Leo Smith: No.
AD: So what were you listening to when, say, On the Corner came out? Where was your head at the time?
Wadada Leo Smith: Oh, when I was coming up? Yeah, I listened to the music when Miles put it out because you have to realize that those early moments of that music, everybody I know was waiting for the next one to come out.
AD: What’s Miles gonna do next?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes, because the beauty is you know that whatever his artistic intentions are it’s all about the creativity. He demonstrated that over and over and over. You hear a legend the about his band rehearsing and he never rehearsed with the band. Because he knows that all of them are going to rehearse enough to get acquainted with the music and then when he comes on stage with them, it always changes. And they gotta respond in a different kind of way. That was his formula for creativity. By putting one in a fresh space and allowing that space to be conquered by the artists on stage in that moment.
So I listening to that music and I listened very well to it. But when the Yo Miles project came up, I didn’t want to listen freshly to the music we were gonna record. Every one of the records, Henry Kaiser would send me the pieces that we were gonna record but I wouldn’t listen to them. I didn’t tell him I wouldn’t listen to them, I just wouldn’t listen to them because I didn’t want to have that impression on me when I’m trying to reflect on how I wanted to play his music.
AD: Right you wanted to bring your own headspace to that music
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes I didn’t want to have to throw off anything in order to get to where I was going. I wanted to be able to get right into it.
AD: As a trumpeter was Miles, did he serve as a specific kind of inspiration for you to start off?
Wadada Leo Smith: Miles Davis is in the same category as a Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington or a Count Basie. He influenced all the instruments. Same with Thelonious Monk, they influenced all the instrument players. Miles Davis has that dramatic exciting notion about how to make art in the present moment and when you’re in a theater and you experience that you’re in another kind of paradise. Because you know what you’re experiencing in that moment is fresh raw and unique.
AD: And it exists then and it won’t exist again.
Wadada Leo Smith: It will not come again. The occasion may be presented in another venue at another time and space and be completely different. Listen to Bitches Brew, then listen to four or five live versions, they’re like new pieces of work, every one of them.
AD: Because he would just open it up each time, He would step into anew. You studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan. How did your time spent studying and teaching inform your musical approach?
Wadada Leo Smith: Actually what I did is study within the ethnomusicology area. I took two classes, one on Native American music, because—I can’t figure the name of the professor—but he was a scholar on that music and I wanted to take that class, and I took one on Indian music. But my main goal was to go there and study the instruments. I studied the koto, I studied the South Indian flute, and I studied the Ghanaian flute. The South Indian flute is in C and the Ghanaian Flute is in B flat, same as my trumpet was in. The way I got information wasn’t even going to class. I would engage in dialog with my teacher. Asiama, was his name. I lived in New Haven so it was a short trip. I could do it free because I had the GI bill because I’d been in ‘Nam. But my former study was at the Sherwood School of Music in Chicago. I went there for two or three years and that was a very exciting time. This was during the time that I recorded The Bell with Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, and Muhal Richard Abrams. I was going to school at that time, also playing with Milton at that same time. It was a beautiful, exciting time.
AD: That’s wild, you’re in all these different worlds experiencing all these different things, but they all felt like…
Wadada Leo Smith: I would leave my house at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning and would return at 8 or 9 o’clock at night. I was either engaged in school or engaged in music or something like that.
AD: I’m curious, you’ve written a lot, do you have a writing routine now?
Wadada Leo Smith: Well I write all the time now because the iPhone is such a fantastic vehicle. I go through my notes. My notes are filled with whatever I am thinking about, any thought that comes to my head. A conceptual idea or philosophical or poetic. Even the performance or new piece I jot it all down in my notes. My notes are filled with all of these things. Then I transfer it to a computer where I put it in a document or something like that. But the iPhone, because I have, and this is my studio room, maybe you can’t see it, but I have at least 20 or 30 notebooks because I used to write in notebooks, but since the iPhone and all of these things i don’t have to write in notebooks anymore.
AD: Now it’s your notebook. You basically always have that at your disposal are you working on a book right now or anything?
Wadada Leo Smith: I’m working on a couple things right now. There’s a guy named Summers, from the Midwest, we’re working on a kind of biography based around the idea of creation. And then there’s a guy, Marcelo, who lives in Italy. We’re working on a kind of biography. He calls it a talk biography where he does interviews and then he constructs it afterwards. But I’m also working on what I call a poetic memoir that’s written in a poetic style where I don’t have to blossom out everything, but I can put it in condensed form. I work on that, say for a month or two and I work two or three days, four days out of those months or two, on that project. So I jump from one hot pot to the next hot pot.
AD: Has it always been like that for you, you’re juggling multiple projects?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes, because look, during the shutdown I’ve completed and finished my string quartet. I did tons of Ankrasmation pieces. I did a cantata for voice and six instruments which was about the first responders to the pandemic. I did a suite for a new ensemble that has never played together—they’ve never even met each other yet. It’s all in my head, all on paper right now, but hopefully, but the end of the year I’ll have that ensemble in studio. It’s brand new they’ve never played together. Two or three know each other, but everybody doesn’t know each other. And I’m very excited to get that in the studio to record together
AD: So you don’t have a problem coming up with energy it sounds like.
Wadada Leo Smith: No no, look I do what I do. Starting tomorrow, I do about ten hours of visits to the New School in New York.
AD: You’re going to start a residency there.
Wadada Leo Smith: I’m always busy. My life feels like an avalanche, but a pleasant one. Where I’m not in front of the avalanche trying to keep it from catching me.
AD: You’re skiing.
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes! [Laughs]
AD: You mentioned the Ankrasmation that’s the system of notation that you’ve developed.
Wadada Leo Smith: Well now it’s a language. At first I was calling it a notation. Then I thought it was a theory, then as a concept. But since it’s been around over 50 years now, since 1967. I’ve discovered in the last 20 years that its a language. I call it the Ankrasmation symbolic language for creative musicians and creative artists.
AD: And that’s the way you present all of your work to your collaborators?
Wadada Leo Smith: No it’s just one facet of my creativity. Ankrasmation works around images, shapes, colors, and it’s all built into something in nature or that’s natural. For example the light spectrum. All of the colors are thought of and looked at in terms of the light spectrum. The idea of the image, what shape is on it and what the image means, the notion of velocity units, both fast and slow, long and short, sustained units, creative units, all of these things have materialized now where there’s a vast vocabulary of information around the Ankrasmation.
Ankrasmation means that the artist has the opportunity through a score to shape a performance reality, based off of that score and that information of how they have shaped it is not shared with the next person in the ensemble. It’s all kept secret so that when the performance takes place everyone makes their contribution from their own vantage point and not from the fact that they know what Jack or Jill is going to do. If you know what Jack or Jill is going to do it actually pollutes the performance to a point where it’s not as powerful. If you’re getting five people performing, you want five different realities, and not three with five.
AD: And the unity comes from the five people basically being true to their?
Wadada Leo Smith: Being true to themselves but also doing the research and use of the language. Those are the three connections.
AD: How did you decide to invent this?
Wadada Leo Smith: Well I discovered also that I didn’t invent it, I discovered it. It already existed, you see. I believe that by the law of thermodynamics, everything in creation has always been there. Whatever’s in creation doesn’t leave, it just changes from one form to another. And if that’s true, then we need to question how we get creativity from inspiration. That is it comes from somewhere else and then comes out of us and into us, and therefore we are discovering something.
We are discovering how to use this light that has come into us as we perform it. And the same way with Ankrasmation. I discovered it piece by piece and I think of it as being already present. I believe every other discovery, like Einstein’s relativity. And I mention that because my little seven year old Granddaughter said to me “Granddaddy do you know about Einstein’s theory of relativity?” And I said, “Yes! How do you know about that?” And she said well my teacher was talking about it.
But he discovered that as well. What’s the process of discovering? You’re looking for it and expecting to find it and then you find it. Inventing is a whole different other kind of notion and then at first i had those same ideas as well and then as you become more informed about how inspiration works and how creativity is something that nobody has in their back pocket. That it comes through him and it keeps moving, it doesn’t settle there, you can’t reach inside and pull it out, it has to come in and through you.
AD: Have you had various points of your lifetime where it’s not coming in the way you want it to?
Wadada Leo Smith: The answer is yes but no. Let me explain. I love this. My model is Duke Ellington and Bach, old man Bach, from the 17-1800s, in Austria and Germany. Bach wrote something like 11 or 12 thousand pieces of music. Duke Ellington wrote, they claim officially, is somewhere around 7,500 pieces but there’s another record that shows 8,000 or something. I believe the 8,000 or something. Let me pose it like this, if they had to wait for inspiration 8,000 thousand or eleven thousand times, that doesn’t make sense. So what did they do? They learned something about themselves. I learned the same thing because I studied them, and I studied how they think and I discovered how they learned.
They learned how to trigger their inspiration wherever they needed it. And the key to it is that you have to be able to either center yourself in the midst of a lot other people or be by yourself. That quietness immediately reduces the distortion that’s on you. To prove it is this: Whenever you go on a walk by yourself, not with somebody else, the moment you do that ideas start popping into your head no matter what’s happening. Every single creature on Earth does that. That’s inspiration. So what you do is you learn how to map it. The sensation that makes the body feel, the mental capacity that it shakes up, and the conscious reality that is happening. You map those feelings inside and it’s all the physical sensation of feelings with the way in which you achieve that. So inspiration comes to the person who has learned how to map it without a problem.
AD: In the ’70s you recorded for ECM and also around that time started your own label.
Wadada Leo Smith: Just before, I actually did. I recorded ECM in ’76/77, somewhere in that zone, and my Kabell label started in 1970/71.
AD: So you had been playing with other people. What was the inspiration for starting a label? What was your reasoning?
Wadada Leo Smith: Well at that time I was thinking primarily about documentation but I’ve learned that the notion of owning your own recording company and recording for yourself was a bigger notion than documentation. I continued to record for myself over the years. I have multiple projects that I record for myself. Even though I’m recording for other companies. It’s that you have the responsibility for self reliance and you don’t depend on nobody. Because the moment you begin to believe that somebody can do everything but you or most of the things for you, you run into the rut of failure. Self-sufficient is the most preferable instinct for the human being.
AD: We talked a little bit about how you don’t feel the need to judge or place frameworks around the things you make. What does that mean when you are doing the studio work or you’re deciding what records you are going to put out? I’m curious how the editing process plays into your work, especially it’s coming from the place of preserving the spontaneous moment. Does editing enter in? And what shape does that take in your work?
Wadada Leo Smith: Well I’ve loved the studio over the years. For the last six or seven years, I’ve been in the studio five to eight times a year. I work a lot in the studio, I love the studio, I’ve learned how to make art in the studio and therefore what that means is that I can take a piece of music that has strong parts and weak parts in it and minimize the weakness of it and emphasize the strangeness of it. Most people mix. Like you hear a bunch of sounds and you try to get the maximum relationship of all of them into some kind of agreeable shape. I don’t mix that way. I mix below the micro level. I mix based off of one sound, one pitch, one beat, like that. It takes me a lot of time because I’m doing it on the micro level, not the big level.
For example if I have five instruments I’ll start with just one instrument and mix and work with every single phrase in that instrument. And then I’ll put the next one on and work through it and once I got them all, gone through all of them, then I begin to connect them all together. And still at this stage there is an element of balance that has to be occurring. That balance needs to be balanced also by aesthetics and also what’s the most dominant and important element right now. So you balance the less powerful with the most powerful but you make it in a way so that it doesn’t distort what the good final image should actually be.
AD: Do you have people you count on to be there to help with some of the technical aspects like engineers and stuff?
Wadada Leo Smith: Well I have a brilliant engineer. His first name is Greg and we’ve been working together for the last four or five years, we’ve been working together in the studio. We’ve been working together with TUM records. It’s been a lot of different powerful engineers out of New York City, who I love working with. James [Farber] is one of them. He’s an excellent engineer, he’s with ECM. I worked for the first time with ECM when Vijay and I when we did our duet.
AD: A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke?
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes, yes.
AD: What a beautiful record that is by the way, mind blowing.
Wadada Leo Smith: Thank you. And Petri [Haussila] who owns TUM records. I worked a lot with him, I love working with Manfred [Eicher] for example. Everybody has their own unique way of working. Manfred is a real [he] has what we call tone master ears. He was a musician, he played the bass. He has a masters degree in music. He’s a real artist in the studio. He doesn’t use pens or paper to write down stuff.
AD: He just keeps it in his head until it’s time to.
Wadada Leo Smith: He keeps it in his head and he manipulates stuff. For example, if the piano is too close to some glass inside of the studio the sound will hit that and there will be a tiny bit difference. He can hear that and he can come out and have the piano moved. Or if the trumpet is a little bit too heavy to the left he will come out and move the trumpet over a little bit. Petri, who is also excellent in the studio, will touch none of that. He deals with organization and the technical notation of which tracks and stuff like that. He’s a lawyer and he works in that context.
AD: He’s a details guy.
Wadada Leo Smith: Yes yes and i love working with both of them. Chuck Nessa, out of Chicago, he does none of it. His presence helps the studio event. He comes out and he’ll stand beside you, and he’ll look very nicely at you, and you’ll know from that gaze that that’s a good one or something.
AD: It sounds like what you were talking about earlier. Many paths, same destination. There’s a lot of ways it can work in the studio. But it also sounds to me like you are able to interact with all these different styles because you have your thing figured out.
Wadada Leo Smith: I know what I want. No matter who’s in the studio, I know the sound I want. I know the music that I brought in that I want to have recorded. Before I go to the studio I have made a complete study of the material I have at hand and I have taken detailed notes on how and where I want to start and do it. Once I get in the studio I don’t look at the notes, I have a feeling but I don’t look at that because now I want to make art. I record all music in sections, one section, one section, one section, and so once I get ready to put it together it may take me, like Ten Freedom Summers took me six weeks to just edit and start the first mixing of it. Six weeks! Once the mixing side took place that was another three or four weeks of that so I spent ten or twelve weeks just mixing that.
AD: That’s intense but you know what you’re after so you just have to get it there. That’s a good note for us to close on. You evoke history a lot in your work. I’m thinking of the national parks album. I’m thinking of Ten Freedom Summers, about the civil rights movement. You’ve made music reflecting on the Occupy movement. It feels to me like the winds in the air culturally and socially and politically—that’s something you are attuned to.
When you did that record with Deerhoof you issued a statement about Black Lives Matter and how you said they were doing a good job keeping the issue of rights and liberty upfront and I’ll quote you, you said “Since in today’s world true democracy is not practiced anywhere on the planet. And that we must develop the capacity to share the wealth the power and the Earth and the sky together”—we’ve got to work collectively.
And I wonder, the pandemic revealed a great, great chasm between those who were safe and those who were not safe. The people who were most relieved upon, people like our first responders, people like our grocery store workers, they were not taken care of—are still not taken care of, or treated like the essential people they are to the way things work. And I just wonder, all that swirling around your mind, the strangeness of the pandemic, along with the Black Lives Matter. You see this huge moment, the continued struggles around systemic police brutality, I’m curious do you feel like we’re on the way to that peaceful world? Do you think things are moving roughly in the direction they need to and if they’re not what can we do to get them there?
Wadada Leo Smith: Well I’ll say it this way, because we have so much conflict in society today, we know that we’re moving in the right direction. Because any form to correct the problem also creates a lot of growing pain and our constitution has been constructed with amendments throughout its history and those amendments have all been philosophically good for America. The only problem with America as a social vehicle is it hasn’t practiced those laws and principles that have been brought in through amendment and that’s what I meant when I said there’s no democracy on the planet today. Philosophically we have the right ideas and we have the components leading to right kind of legal and social principles we should follow but we’re not practicing them as a society in a way in which this transformation can come faster. But believe me it’s coming and it’s going to happen. And the reason I know it’s coming and it’s going to happen is in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement started, you hardly had any African Americans in positions to talk about these things. You hardly had any African Americans in greater numbers of wealth to support these things. And even in the educational institutions you had people with powerful degrees both in lets say literary and sciences and things like that but they had no positions.
In this society today African Americans have been parachuted throughout the spectrum of society, as well as Latino Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, and that correlation right there that I just mentioned, that’s the future of America and it’s the future of the world. And Europe is having a great deal of growing pains in the same way as here, Africa and Asia are having the same growing pains we’re having here so the whole world is in a flux. But a flux that we can see a small apex out of the top of each of those areas victory. It’s coming.
AD: What do you think that victory might look like?
Wadada Leo Smith: That victory will be that racial intentions towards people of color will not be characterized by laws, and exploitations by these laws. There will still be people who hate what the society is like, there will still be mean and evil spirited people on all sides but they won’t be able to stop the good will of the nation or planet. And that’s the part that we need more. Because anyone can hate you but if they don’t have the possibility of blocking you from making progress, it’s ok to keep that hate, just let us progress.
AD: Well with that it has been a true joy to speak with you and pick your brain on all these things and I really enjoyed the opportunity. If you decide to go skydiving please make sure I hear about it so I can give you a good luck message as you hop out, I’ll be thinking of you. Thanks for creatively doing so all the years that you have.
Wadada Leo Smith: Thank you and let me say one last thing, I’d like the public to know starting May 21st I’ll have two projects coming out, they’re three CD sets each, one is a solo CD set, a solo music made in a 15th century church outside of Helsinki, and the other is a Milford Graves duet, and with Bill Laswell, we’re [working as] a trio, but in addition to those six i will have between May and September 19th CDs coming out in various kinds of packages including 12 string quartets in a six CD box set.
AD: Looking at the release schedule is wild. You’ll be teaming up with your friend Jack DeJohnette, among others, on a four CD set of drum and trumpet. You have the Great Lakes Quartet with Henry Threadgill. You’ve got a great year ahead of you and I really appreciate you making our show a part of it.
Wadada Leo Smith: Peace to you ,man.