One day prior to our interview, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was working in the studio with his Golden Quartet on a suite honoring six national parks. “The parks are really something fantastic,” Smith says over the phone. “The idea came out of American ideals: preservation. But right now those rights [to preserved natural spaces] are being violated by Congress because Congress controls it, and they use it as political hay to raise money. [National parks] belong to all Americans, living and dead.”
This concept comes just a few years after Smith recorded The Great Lakes Suite, in which adventurous jazz musicians Henry Threadgill (saxophone) and Jack DeJohnette (drums) joined Smith for an a homage to the five Great Lakes, plus an additional lake chosen by the composer. But Smith’s most ambitious concept to date has to be Ten Freedom Summers, the 2012 four-disc release that chronicled the Civil Rights movement through music by both his Golden Quartet/Quintet and a chamber ensemble. When asked if the new work-in-progress connects to the other pieces, Smith answers with the calm, thoughtful manner of a sage: “There is a connection between The Great Lakes and also Ten Freedom Summers, because they’re all about rights and privileges in our society.”
Smith was an early member of the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Chicago institution created in 1965 by musicians looking to play original music that didn’t fit comfortably in any specific genre. In the late ’60s, the trumpeter formed a group with saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins that was one of the first avant-garde groups that traveled to Europe and found a supportive audience. Smith has released numerous albums under his own name. Preferring long tones over complex horn lines, Smith makes a large impact with the most basic tools.
Though his music often gets branded as a permutation of jazz, Smith thinks the term doesn’t apply. His work is “connected to [jazz] because historically, we followed Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, all those people. But [my music is] not jazz, and I feel that their music wasn’t jazz,” he says. “I feel that because of the way capitalism works, it produces art and medicine as commodities, and that’s the way it’s happened in this case. Nowadays, I think it’s probably easier to look at the work and call it creative music … and just move on forward.”
Smith comes to town this weekend to perform in the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival with pianist Vijay Iyer. The two have played together for more than two decades. Most recently, they released A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, which centers around a suite inspired by the late Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Occasionally stark, sometimes ominous, but always suspenseful, this music also has greater meaning. Mohamedi “was a woman who had freedom through travel and making art. You don’t find that in a society like India where woman’s rights are more suppressed than they are here,” Smith says. “That work has both political and social implications. It’s not just a portrait. It’s identifying her as an activist and a powerful woman.”
Smith says the music changes shape every night. “Nothing is totally fixed in the performance,” he explains. “We’re able to approach the instrumentation of these pieces, whether it’s open horn or mute, Fender Rhodes or [piano]. We’re able to create those same moments in a way that’s rare and beautiful without repeating what’s on the record.”