In the ongoing struggle between theory and performance in avant-garde music, theory has increasingly assumed the upper hand. The once-dominant Cageian imperative to suspend theoretical preconception and “simply to listen” has been largely eclipsed in recent years by a neo-Aristotelian approach to “music appreciation,” in which reading, study, and conceptual mastery represent the price of admission for getting down with the music.
Consider, for example, the pedantic tone of much contemporary jazz criticism, where academic theorists (and many music journalists) routinely dismiss listeners’ complaints about song structure and instrumental technique with instructions to read the artist’s theoretical writings. After all, the critic dutifully explains, one can only fully appreciate a composition or performance according to the criteria established by the artist him- or herself.
As cart-before-the-horse as it sounds, this form of music appreciation is not without its rewards. Listening, for example, to Anthony Braxton’s demanding four-act opera, Trillium R: Shala Fears for the Poor (Braxton House, 1999), I’ve found myself repeatedly returning to the composer’s voluminous Tri-Axiom Writings, along with the critical writings of Braxton apologist Graham Lock, for clues and directions. It’s a stop-and-start process that (at least for me) has incrementally transformed an initially fidgety and incomprehensible muddle of sounds into a work of real beauty and wonder.
A notable exception to this read-before-you-listen approach to avant-garde music is the extraordinary musical legacy of composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. A compatriot of Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Davis at Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Smith has somehow managed to wed an elaborately idiosyncratic aesthetic theory, social philosophy, and system of musical notation to a body of music with the directness, loveliness, and immediate appeal of more traditional forms of music.
Born in Leland, Mississippi, in 1941, Smith received his early musical education from his stepfather, high-school band instructor and Delta blues musician Alex “Little Bill” Wallace. After a brief internship as a teenage accompanist with blues singer/guitarist Little Milton, he honed his instrumental chops in several Army bands, before moving to Chicago in 1967, where he finally hooked up with Braxton, Davis, and the rest of the AACM. (His early compositions and performances during the period are documented on Kabell Years: 1971–1979 [Tzadik, 2004].)
On my favorite Smith recordings—Divine Love (ECM, 1978), Yo Miles! (Shanachie, 1998), and America (Tzadik), last year’s spirited duet with percussionist Jack DeJohnette—he presents a collection of compositions and performances worthy of comparison (in both their compositional innovation and technical mastery) to the finest recordings of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. And like the work of his distinguished antecedents, Smith’s best work requires little or no formal conceptual orientation to appreciate. All you have to do is listen.
Smith’s newest release, Spiritual Dimensions, may be the strongest and most enjoyable recording of the lot. Recorded live in 2008 and 2009, the double-CD release includes separate performances by two of Smith’s favorite musical cohorts, the Golden Quintet (featuring keyboardist Vijay Iyer, bassist John Lindberg, and percussionists Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye) and the ten-piece big band Organic (featuring Lindberg, AkLaff, and a host of others). In combination, the two performances provide a fairly exhaustive catalogue of Smith’s range as a composer and instrumentalist, and an ideal introduction to the various sources of his musical appeal.
One major source of Smith’s appeal is the fullness and purity of his instrumental tone. In the proud, muscle-and-finesse tradition of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, Smith masterfully balances deep, powerful, diaphragmatic propulsion with the restraint and precision with which he articulates individual notes. Visually, Smith in performance is all grimace and strain. With his head bowed and his feet firmly planted, he stubbornly fashions the powerful gusts with which he attacks his mouthpiece into the rich, even delicate, tones that float effortlessly from the bell of his instrument.
It’s a level of technical mastery and tonal precision that is all too rare in both experimental and non-experimental music—and one that provides Smith’s most challenging and seemingly avant-garde performances with a directness and clarity that invites even the most suspicious listener to give the music a chance.
For examples of Smith’s tonal mastery on Spiritual Dimensions, check out the calm, confident theme that floats above the fierce instrumental rumble on “Crossing Sirat” (on the Golden Quintet disc) and the lush, lonely, elegantly Davis-like theme that opens “Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy” (on the Organic disc). The latter performance is the singular instrumental achievement of the recording, with the broad, muted drones of the cello and guitars sprouting from Smith’s clear, lovely phrases like blossoms from a vibrant stem.
Another reason for Smith’s broad appeal is the playful, engaging nature of his foundational aesthetic theory and compositional technique, which he calls Ankhrasmation. For Smith, all music can be traced to the vital life force through which the seemingly disparate pulses and voices of nature miraculously converge into a vibrant whole. The cohesive force behind this transformation is the “spirit-drum,” a primordial rhythm that includes the continuous, dynamic interplay between sound and silence, through which individual sounds and voices collectively propel themselves into unity and harmony.
“Rhythm,” Smith explains in his “Notes to My Music,” “existed at the beginning of time and was often thought to be the absolute creator of the worlds and their inhabitants—it is therefore the very essence of the universe, the hidden fluid that runs through all beings—human, animal, and vegetable—the magical point of contact and of participation, of man with nature.”
In Smith’s compositions and performances, rhythm as such is not dependent on traditionally percussive instruments or techniques but is inherent in the natural patterns through which sounds and silences collect, either in the fluid stops and starts of a single instrumental recital or in the interaction among the various instruments in an ensemble.
To illustrate his point, Smith cites the example of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions from the late 1920s (which were intensely percussive but lacked traditional percussive instruments), particularly “Weatherbird,” a celebrated collaboration between Armstrong and pianist Earl Hines. “This improvisation,” he maintains, “was recorded in 1928 and performed by only two improvisers. Now this duo music, as you will have noticed if you’ve ever heard it, does not have drums, but the spirit-essence of the drums is there!”
In recent years, Smith has reflected on and interacted most extensively with the music of Miles Davis, including his wonderfully inventive collaboration with Henry Kaiser on the ongoing Yo Miles! project. The form and the spirit of Davis are all over the place on Spiritual Dimensions, particularly on the funk-driven improvisations of both the small and full ensemble treatments of “South Central L.A. Kulture.” On both versions of the song (either of which would have fit in seamlessly on Bitches Brew or On the Corner), Smith and his respective crews masterfully employ Davis’s trademark technique of threading the same musical phrase (in both cases, John Lindberg’s belligerent wah-wah bass pattern) across multiple movements and tracks. As the familiar phrasing repeatedly rises and falls on the quintet version, the instruments shift effortlessly from a dark, funk groove to an explosion of double drums to a brilliant shimmer of acoustic keyboards at the end. The full-ensemble version begins with Smith’s defiant statement on trumpet, stammering and stuttering triumphantly above a deep orchestral roar for almost five minutes before making room for—but never fully relinquishing control to—the cool, lumbering groove of the drums, bass, and guitars.
Smith’s spirit-drum aesthetic is illustrated most convincingly on “Organic” (the lengthy third cut from the large ensemble), where the dense, incrementally accruing improvisation suggests the organic cacophony of insects, birds, bullfrogs, gusts of wind, and splashing water in and around an isolated pond at night. Each of the instruments, which are variously plucked and scratched and lightly hammered into chirps, groans, and splashes of individual sounds, momentarily rises to the surface of the mix, before emptying back into the overall rhythmic blur. As the tune progresses, the bass and drums repeatedly muscle their way almost but never completely out of the mire, the guitars and single horn intermittently echoing their harsh phrasings, only to recreate a louder, more sustained version of the original “organic” wall of sound. For Smith, the roaring wails and fierce rhythmic phrases that emerge and disappear and eventually emerge again are simply selective amplifications of the animating rhythm that was always already there, just waiting to be heard and followed by both composer and musician.
“These are life sources,” Smith explains in “Notes to My Music,” “that bring forth love through the creative ability of all man. These are the sources that spur, that prompt the nowness, right-nowness, totality of the improviser, the creative improviser.”
A final critical factor in the appeal of the music is Smith’s refreshing enthusiasm for earlier musical traditions. Unlike many other musical innovators and experimental theorists, Smith stubbornly refuses to favorably contrast the merits of his own theories and compositions with the stale, compromising decadence of more conventional forms. Instead, he draws aggressively and joyfully from the past—from popular to classical forms—finding corroborative evidence of the rhythmic life force in even the most seemingly pedestrian musical traditions.
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.