Name: Wadada Leo Smith
Occupation: Composer, improviser, trumpeter
Current release: 2021 has been a productive year for Wadada Leo Smith as he approaches his 80th birthday. By March 2022, he will have realised six major projects and a total of 22 CDs on TUM Records in just under two years. They include A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday with Jack DeJohnette and Vijay Iyer; the 4CD box The Chicago Symphonies featuring his Great Lakes Quartet with Henry Threadgill on saxophones, John Lindberg on double bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums; the 3CD box Sacred Ceremonies with Milford Graves and Bill Laswell, as well as another 3CD box, Trumpet. Coming in early 2022 are two more TUM releases: the 7CD box, String Quartets No. 1 - 12; and the 4CD box Emerald Duets featuring Smith performing with drummers Pheeroan akLaff, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille and Jack DeJohnette. He’s also featured on Sun Beans Of Shimmering Light with Douglas R. Ewart and Mike Reed on Astral Spirits. He’s also been writing commissions, conducting residencies and premiering new work. On December 18th, his 80th birthday, he’ll post a streaming concert to his website as a thank you to his fans.
Tell me a bit about how your relationship with the trumpet has changed, please – from your very first solo recording up until the present moment.
If there’s anything that has changed about playing the trumpet it’s easier than it was earlier. And I don’t necessarily mean that physically. I mean that spiritually or emotionally it is easier for me than it was earlier.
The trumpet is a tubular instrument. It’s longer than it looks, and one of the qualities of the trumpet is that when one blows without hesitation multiple possibilities of any one particular sound are possible. By that I mean that you can play it without fear, and allow the sound that is already congregated inside the trumpet to also become a part of what you are actually expressing.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you?
I think a lot of people work from being inspired by flowers and the sunrise and earthquakes and things like that. I think that is kind of superficial.
I believe inspiration is the key to all creation. They say it in the bible, the Prophets Muhammad, peace be upon him, says it, Buddha says it, every great and important enlightened person knows that everything in creation comes from inspiration.
So inspiration is the absolute key. It also authenticates whether that work of art or that idea is real.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Everything in life is transformative, and everything in life is changing, therefore everything is constantly becoming aware of its own state and different realities. The word improvisation has no meaning for me.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Actually, none of those are there, the truth is what I said earlier, it comes from inspiration.
How does one become inspired? Well, on this planet there are so many things to do, so the person that becomes less occupied with the distraction of the world soon becomes bombarded with inspiration.
Those moments, when captured, are the true components of art.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? In how far are there differences between recording/performing solo, in smaller ensembles (such as with Bill Laswell and Milford Graves) or bigger groups?
I‘ve noticed that this comes up often right now. Being prepared means having your instrument intact, being able to use it in a proper way, and depending on the project, if you’re working from your own context of musical meaning and design, the best thing is to be where you can walk on stage and produce what you need to produce.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating?
Being able to wake up in the morning, and realize that the sun has risen and being able to see the day all the way through, and know that sunset is closing the day.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in the moment of creation? What are your thoughts on the interaction with other musicians, the need for compromise and the decision-making process?
When I’m performing my focus is deeply inside me, and when I’m making art, if I’m successful on focusing deep inside, I can create a higher quality. I’m aware of the ensemble making this journey with me, but I’m not responsible for them, I‘m responsible for myself. And that’s true if I’m playing their music or I’m playing my music.
Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians?
Being an artist is not easy. Rashied Ali said making art is as serious as your life. So are all the ways of thinking about your process.
What is the process delivering? It has something to do with the quality of making the right choices, and having compassion for other people, and being as generous as you possibly can on all levels.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
I guess people make rules all the time. I don’t really know what it means. I admire the music of John Stevens and I think that’s enough for me.
What tend to be the best collaborations in your opinion – those with artists you have a lot in common with or those where you have more differences?
Those in the collaboration have the greatest responsibility of learning how to share and to be non-partial towards each other. Often, collaborations are the hardest types of events to achieve satisfaction through, mainly because the properties that are being used in making the art object is being shared in a way that is not totally beneficial towards the objective goals of the project.
So can you learn from a successful collaboration? Yes, and you can learn from one that fails. But the learning curve, and what’s learned, is different.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance?
Every space has a sound, some of them you can pitch in terms of E and F and G.
When you warm up inside of a space, the warm up is not just to make the trumpet warm enough to play through, but also to make the space that you’re playing in be aware of that trumpet sound, and having the artist respond to the fact that the space has a certain sound.
Some places resonate more powerfully than others in certain spaces, so you have to take that into consideration during the warmup, but it changes the moment the ensemble starts playing, and the acoustic relation changes within the scope of what you heard when you warmed up in an empty space.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
When you’re dealing with inspiration, the choices are to receive it or not receive it. If you receive it, there’s a question of how much did you receive? It’s a bit different with ideas, because people usually achieve their ideas based on what someone has said and done, but inspiration is not about the otherness of someone or something else, it’s a direct implantation from somewhere else, that this quality and quantity should be released.
So does it pull me one way or another? Well, again, the object itself is inspiration, but the process itself is not necessarily so important, because to get the inspiration out of the horn and into the space, it doesn’t matter if you push it out or throw it out or bump it out, that is the core of what the art practice is about, so the idea can change.
Often writers start with themes or ideas. Composers have themes, but they’re just to quiet down the space so that they can make art.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
The best creative space is when you have total focus and excellent command of the material you’re working with, and you’re able to not get trapped inside the material. You use the material in the same way as one would reflect light: the light is still coming, but when reflected it’s still the light. So if the material doesn‘t entrap you, one has a better chance of making that piece of art have meaning. And by meaning, I mean emotional content and range, intellectual and spiritual components, and a physical property, and what makes sense is when all of those properties are balanced in a way that the art touches someone.
The artist doesn’t have to know who it touches, but if someone felt it, and the artist also felt it, that vindicates the inspiration. If someone is making a piece of art and it is just a construction of something without inspiration, it stands the chance of not having emotional range and therefore it has missed the target, and the target is communication. And the communication transforms, and gives us the courage to make the right vital decisions as we move across earth.
How is playing live in front of an audience and alone in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
It could be different, but when you understand how to open the key to inspiration, a studio performance has the same value as a live performance. One is instantaneously connected, and a studio recording comes afterwards, but the impact can be just as powerful.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Often before a piece of mine is finished, I have probably composed it five or six times, and once I say it is finished, it is usually finished. I don’t keep tinkering with a work unless I'm adding more instruments to it.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Coffee can give you calmness and relaxation, and the quality of the taste buds are reinvigorated through pure, natural coffee. Because music is inspired, that which is inside of the music comes from somewhere else, and once it is revealed it has the greatest possibility of transforming one’s life. To make a great cup of coffee you need good water and beans. But as a practical view, coffee does not enter the space in an inspired moment and ask to be expressed.
Listen to me carefully: Music is not of this world, and it’s probably not of the universe as well, but it is definitely part of creation, and there is probably no example of music in nature. I know there are people like musicians and other kinds of people that think that a heartbeat or train hitting the rail is music, but it’s not music, because those are part of the noise factor and sound, and they would happen no matter which train would run over the tracks and everything the heartbeat does is to keep the body living. So music comes from another place, that’s why it is so vital.
The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky said music was highest form of art, and he said it because all of the other arts are found throughout creation and music is not. I would recommend his book ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art' to anyone who is serious about living with and engaging with art, either as a practitioner or as someone who loves art.