Mississippi-born trumpeter Leo Smith (1941) moved to Chicago in 1967, in
time to join the "creative" bandwagon and found the Creative Construction
Company with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins.
But his persona was fundamentally different from the "scientists" of the
Like Anthony Braxton, Smith developed his own musical theory and his own
("ahkreanvention" for scoring sound, rhythm and silence),
but, unlike anyone else in that school, Smith viewed
music as a vehicle, not as a goal; as a journey, not as a destination.
His musical vision first surfaced in the six ascetic solo "multi-improvisations" of
Creative Music 1 (december 1971). By employing other sound-producing devices
besides the trumpet, he created eerie soundscapes
in the seven-minute Improvisations No 4 for found percussion and the
12-minute Creative Music 1 for trumpet, flugelhorn and "mobile sounds".
The 13-minute aFmie-Poem DancE 3 on flugelhorn
and the eight-minute Ogotommeli - Dogon Sage on gamelan percussion
mapped vast open spaces of music philosophy.
Not one note was wasted: Leo Smith was unique among creative musicians in that he aimed for the essential and the quintessential, rarely sounding rhetorical like Braxton or ornate like Abrams. He seemed to value silence more than sound itself.
That philosophy was better channeled into the two lengthy pieces of
Reflectativity (november 1974) for a trio with Anthony Davis
on piano and Wes Brown on bass: Reflectativity and T Wmukl D.
Smith's contempt for redundance translated into loose ensemble counterpoint
and a general sense of intimacy.
He also played on multi-instrumentalist Michael Gregory Jackson's Clarity (august 1976) that featured the stellar line-up of David Murray (tenor sax), Oliver Lake (flute, soprano sax, alto sax, talking drum) and Leo Smith (trumpet, soprano trumpet, flugelhorn, Indian flute).
Smith formed New Dalta Ahkri with pianist Anthony Davis, saxophonist Oliver
Lake, bassist Wes Brown and drummer Paul Maddox. The sophisticated sound of
Song of Humanity (august 1976), permeated by Eastern spirituality, was best
represented by two Davis compositions,
Lexicon and Of Blues and Dreams, but also by Smith's own
Peacocks, Gazelles, Dogwood Trees & Six Silver Coins.
The Haunt (april 1976) documents a trio with Bobby Naughton (vibraharp) and Perry Robinson (clarinet).
A peak of Smith's lyrical imagination was the six-movement
Mass on the World (may 1978),
an extended piece blending improvisation and composition,
performed by Smith (on trumpet, flugelhorn,
flute), reed player Dwight Andrews and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton.
The same trio penned the elegant, romantic 22-minute prayer Divine Love on
Divine Love (september 1978), while Charlie Haden was added on bass for the
Smith, Andrews and Naughton were accompanied by bassist Wes Brown and drummer Pheeroan AKlaff for the 19-minute Images and the surreal Spirit Catcher on Spirit Catcher (may 1979), while
The Burning of Stones (inspired by West African and Japanese music)
matched Smith's trumpet with three harps
for one of his most pensive chamber pieces.
Smith had elaborated a theory of "rhythm units" based on Charlie Patton's blues
that helped him calibrate the relationship between sound and silence,
elementary sounds and compound sounds.
The same trio with Wes Brown on bass was documented on the live
Go in Numbers (january 1980), with the lengthy improvisations of
Go in Numbers and Illumination - The Nguzo Saba Changes.
Smith's sound was becoming precious and languid, besides pan-ethnic,
almost the opposite of the standard within the Chicago school he came from.
The different sound was due to a different philosophy, to a vision of
jazz as a religious form of art with the power to uplift frustrated people
and as a political form of art with the mission to liberate enslaved people.
On the other hand,
Ahkreanvention (1979) was basically "Creative Music 2", as it returned
to the same solo format of his debut album. Smith alternated on many instruments
during the five-movement suite Love Is a Rare Beauty and
Life Sequence 1.
And Smith contributed the longest track, Return To My Native Land II, to
The Sky Cries The Blues (january 1981) by
the 17-piece Creative Musicians Improvisers Orchestra (with Oliver Lake and
Marty Ehrlich on reeds).
Smith's underlying concerns for humanity became more explicit in the 1980s,
while the music opened up to all sorts of non-jazz influences.
Smith (on trumpet, fluegelhorn, flute and thumb piano) was joined by a bassist and a drummer for the live Touch the Earth Break the Shells (january 1981), with Touch the Earth and Rastafari in the Universe.
Human Rights (march 1985) fused jazz with African, reggae and rock music, while incorporating instruments as diverse as koto, synthesizer and guitar, and maintaining the format of free jazz (the side-long improvisation
Humanismo Justa/ Trutmonda Muziko, recorded in 1982
with Tadao Sawai on koto, Peter Kowald on bass, and Guenter Sommer on drums).
Procession Of The Great Ancestry (february 1983), featuring Naughton and Kahil El Zabar on percussion among others (electric guitar, bass, tenor sax), found him singing and pay homage to great trumpeters of the past: Procession of the Great Ancestry for Miles Davis, The Third World Grainery of Pure Earth for Roy Eldridge, Celestial Sparks in the Sanctuary of Redemption for Dizzy Gillespie.
Smith (now renamed "Wadada", after becoming a Rastafarian, as fashionable at the time) basically parted ways with the austere, European-inspired research of Chicago's creative musicians.
The notable exception was Rastafari (june 1983), a free-jazz session for chamber ensemble (trumpet, soprano saxophone, violin, bass, vibraphone).
The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer (1986) was a live jam between Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet, flugelhorn, mbira, flute and voice) and Ed Blackwell (drums).
After a decade of neglect, Smith returned with
Cosmos Has Spirit (april 1992), live duets (mainly the 32-minute
title-track) between Smith (on bamboo flute, karimba and trumpet) and
percussionist Yoshisaburo Toyozumi,
and especially Kulture Jazz (october 1992), a solo album on which Smith took
care of trumpet, flugelhorn, bamboo flute, koto, mbira, harmonica, percussion, and, last but not least, vocals. This album introduced a tune-oriented
approach, both respectful of the jazz tradition and sentimental in revisiting
his personal life.
Chamber and ethnic compositions surfaced on
Tao-Njia (may 1996): Another Wave More Waves,
the multi-part requiem for Don Cherry, Double Thunderbolt,
and especially Tao-Nija.
Light Upon Light (july 1999) added two compositions for ensemble,
Moths Flames and the Giant Sequoia Redwood Trees and Nur,
Hetep Serenity Tranquility for solo viola,
MultiAmerica for trumpet, voice and found sounds (none of them
These classical-oriented works exuded spirituality via the careful layout
of the timbres of ethnic instruments, in a way not too dissimilar from new-age music.
Burning Meditation (march 1994) documents a live performance by Smith (trumpet, koto, bamboo-flute, voice and percussion) with Japanese drummer Sabu Toyozumi.
Smith also composed Odwira (1995) for twelve multi-ensemble-units, and Heart Reflections (1996).
The quest for a music of shadows continued with Prataksis (april 1997),
a trio with reed player Vinny Golia and bassist Bertram Turetzky, and
reached the zenith with Golden Hearts Remembrance (january 1997),
his most intense, intimate blend of ethnic folk, blues and jazz.
Performed by the sextet N'da Kulture
(David Philipson on bansuri and tambura, William Roper on bass and tuba,
Glenn Horiuchi on piano and shamisen, Sonship Theus on percussion,
Harumi Makino on voice),
the hypnotic 13-minute Golden Hearts Remembrance A Nur Bakhshad and
the romantic 12-minute Emmeya
the eerie soundscapes of the 12-minute Lotus Garden, the ten-minute Tawhid and the 15-minute Condor.
The Golden Quartet (2000), featuring drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Anthony Davis and bassist Malachi Favors, was instead one of his more conventional albums of jazz music (Celestial Sky And All The Magic), and the
quartet's follow-up, Year of the Elephant (april 2002), increased the impression of a Miles Davis clone (Al Madinah, Miles Star in 3 parts).
Smith proved to be one of the most sensational soloists of his generation on
Red Sulphur Sky (2001), that contained the lively suites
(not just abstract solos) of
The Medicine Wheel and AFMIE - Purity and Poverty for solo trumpet or flugelhorn.
Smith also updated his art to the digital age with
Luminous Axis (august 2002), an ambitious set of chamber works for trumpet (or
flugelhorn), live electronics (including laptop musician Ikue Mori) and percussion, notably Caravans Of Winter And Summer for trumpet and four laptops.
Snakish (recorded in 2003 and 2004) Was a less successful implementation of the same idea (guitar, percussion, electronics, voice, computer).
Chamber works of the period, collected on Lake Biwa (november 2004), included:
Lake Biwa - A Fullmoon Purewater Gold,
Sanai's Enclosed Garden of the Truth,
Diamondback Serpent in a House Full of Water and Still Rising,
None was worthy of its predecessors.
Collaborations of this period ranged from
the duets with Anthony Braxton of Organic Resonance (april 2003) and Saturn Conjunct the Grand Canyon in a Sweet Embrace (april 2003)
to Dreams and Secrets (august 2000), a meeting of Leo Smith's N'da Kulture and Zimbabwean vocalist Thomas Mapfumo's group,
to a series of Miles Davis tributes with guitarist Henry Kaiser
to a duet with John Coxon on harmonica and guitars (december 2005).
The live pieces of Tabligh (november 2005), notably the 25-minute title-track, presented a new line-up of the Golden Quartet: Vijay Iyer (keyboards), John Lindberg (bass) and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums).
America (november 2008) is a collaboration between Jack DeJohnette and Wadada Leo Smith, originally composed in 1979.
The double-disc Spiritual Dimensions (april 2009 - Cuneiform, 2009) documents the Golden Quintet with Vijay Iyer (piano and synthesizer), John Lindberg (bass) and drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye,
Abbey Road Quartet (august 2008) was recorded with
(electric guitar), Pat Thomas (piano and synthesizer) and Mark Sanders
The ten-musicians Euphorium Freakestra with Axel Dorner (trumpet), Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky (alto sax), Urs Leimgruber (tenor and soprano saxes), Oliver Schwerdt (grand piano, percussion, electric organ), Friedrich Kettlitz (vocals), Michael Haves and Barre Phillips (double basses), Christian Lillinger and Gunter Baby Sommer (drums) debuted with the double-disc Free Acoustic Supergroup (august 2009), released only 14 years later.
Leo Smith formed Organic, a 14-piece group, for
Heart's Reflections (december 2010 - Cuneiform, 2011)
with four guitarists (Josh
Gerowitz, Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith), Stephanie
Smith (violin), Casey Anderson (alto sax), Casey Butler (tenor sax),
Angelica Sanchez (piano and Wurlitzer piano), bassists John Lindberg and
Skuli Sverrisson, drummer Pheeroan AkLaff, and Charlie
Burgin and Mark Trayle on laptops.
The lengthy journeys of
Don Cherry's Electric Sonic Garden and Leroy Jenkins's Air Steps
sound like post-modernist tributes to the 1970s.
This tour de force also updates jazz-rock of the 1970s to the laptop music
of the 2000s
(Ritual Purity And Love, Pt. I and Toni Morrison: The Black Hole (Sagittarius A)/Conscience And Epic Memory).
Mbira was a trio with drummer Pheeroan akLaff and vocalist and pipa player Min Xiao-Fen that debuted on
Dark Lady of the Sonnets (january 2007).
Wadada Leo Smith also composed Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012), premiered in october 2011, a four-disc concept album about the civil rights movement of the USA performed by the Golden Quintet with a chamber orchestra.
Ancestors (february 2011) was a collaboration with percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo, notably the 26-minute Ancestors.
Brooklyn Duos (december 2005)
documents a collaboration with John Coxon (harmonica and guitars).
TUMO, a large Finnish ensemble (21 members) with trumpet, trombone,
horn, tuba, flutes, piccolo, several saxes, piano, harp, two electric
guitars, accordion, violin, viola, cello, two bassists and three
the two-disc Occupy The World (february 2012), contaiing
25-minute Crossing On A Southern Road and the 33-minute Occupy The World For Life, Liberty And Justice.
Twine Forest (april 2013) is a collaboration between pianist Angelica Sanchez and trumpetist Wadada Leo Smith.
Sonic Rivers (december 2013) was a collaboration among
George Lewis on trombone and electronics, John Zorn on alto
sax and Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet.
A quartet with Henry Threadgill (alto sax and flutes), John Lindberg (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums) recorded the six extended pieces of the double-disc Great Lakes Suite (december 2012 - TUM, 2014).
Red Hill (december 2013) featured Jamie Saft (piano & Fender Rhodes), Joe Morris (acoustic bass) and Balazs Pandi (drums).
Bishopsgate Concert (Treader, 2014) was a collaboration with pianist John Tilbury (one solo by the pianist, three by Smith and a 32-minute duet).
The Nile (april 2014) documents a
collaboration with Hardedge (moniker of Velibor Pedevski).
Celestial Weather (TUM, 2015) contains duets with
John Lindberg on contrabass:
the 17-minute Malachi Favors Maghostut, the 34-minute namesake suite, and
the 11-minute Feathers and Earth.
Red Chrysanthemums, (december 1977) documents solo performances on trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, steelophone, percussion and gongs that remained unreleased for 39 years.
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (october 2015) documents a collaboration between Vijay Iyer (piano, keyboards and electronics) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet).
The 76-minute four-part suite Nessuno (may 2011) gathered Pauline Oliveros (accordion), Roscoe Mitchell ( alto & soprano saxes, flute), John Tilbury (piano) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet).
Four Meditations/ Sound Geometries (march 2003 - Sub Rosa, 2016) contains the 20-minute Four Meditations For Orchestra (1991-1997) and the 26-minute Sound Geometries (2003) for "chamber orchestra, expanded instrument system and 5.1 surround sound system".
The Golden Quintet (pianist Anthony Davis, cellist Ashley Walters,
bassist John Lindberg, drummer Pheeroan akLaff) recorded the six lengthy
postcards of America's National Parks (may 2016).
1. New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718 (20:57)
2. Eileen Jackson Southern,1920-2002: A Literary National Park (9:38)
3. Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America - The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872 (12:14)
4. The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River - a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC (31:07)
5. Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: The Giant Forest, Great Canyon, Cliffs, Peaks, Waterfalls and Cave Systems 1890 (6:46)
6. Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890 (15:23)
Tania Chen on piano, Henry Kaiser on guitars, Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet and William Winant on percussion recorded Ocean Of Storms (2016).
Najwa (march 2014),
with the guitar quartet of Michael Gregory Jackson, Henry Kaiser, Brandon Ross and Lamar Smith plus Bill Laswell (electric bass), Pheeroan Aklaff (drums) and Adam Rudolph (percussion),
contains four tributes: the 16-minute A Resonance Change in the Millennium, in memory of Ornette Coleman; the 14-minute The Master of Kosmic Music and His Spirituality in a Love Supreme, in memory of John Coltrane; the 12-minute Inscriptions of a Rare Beauty, dedicated to Ronald Shannon Jackson; the 10-minute The Empress, Lady Day: In a Rainbow Garden, with Yellow-Gold Hot Springs, Surrounded by Exotic Plants and Flowers, dedicated to Billie Holiday.
Solo - Reflections And Meditations On Monk (august 2015) is a "solo trumpet" album collecting four classic Monk compositions and four new original compositions.
Andrew Cyrille (drums), Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet) and Bill Frisell (guitar) recorded Lebroba (july 2017), including Smith's 17-minute Turiya.
Rosa Parks: Pure Love (may 2017) was an oratorio for three vocalists, a double-quartet and a drummer with electronics.
June 6th 2013 (june 2013) documents a live performance with
Italian musicians Edoardo Marraffa (tenor and sopranino saxes), Alberto Braida (piano), Antonio Borghini (bass), and Fabrizio Spera (drums).
To Be Surrounded By Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough (january 2018) documents a live performance with
rock band Deerhoof.
Sun Beans Of Shimmering Light (recorded in 2015) documents a live performance
with Douglas Ewart on flutes, reeds, percussion & thumb piano and Mike Reed on drums, notably
the 16-minute Constellations And Conjunctional Spaces,
The three-disc boxset Sacred Ceremonies was recorded between december 2015 and may 2016 with Bill Laswell (bass) and Milford Graves (drums).
One disc features duets between Smith and Graves, notably the 31-minute Nyoto. Another disc features duets between Smith and Laswell.
The last disc features all three players.
The three-disc box-set Trumpet (july 2016) contains 14 trumpet solos, notably the 25-minute Rashomon and the 20-minute The Great Litany.
Pacifica Koral Reef (january 2018) contains a 55-minute improvisation with
Henry Kaiser and Alex Varty (both on guitar).
The Great Lakes Suites got a follow-up with the four-disc boxset The Chicago Symphonies, recorded with Jonathon Haffner on alto and soprano saxes, Henry Threadgill on alto ax and flute, John Lindberg on double bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, and containing four symphonies: the 40-minute Gold Symphony (march 2015), the 37-minute Diamond Symphony (march 2015), the 39-minute Pearl Symphony (march 2015), and the 49-minute Sapphire Symphony (june 2018).
A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday (november 2016) documents a trio with keyboardist Vijay Iyer and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Smith composed the 18-minute The A.D. Opera and the 12-minute A Love Sonnet For Billie Holiday while Iyer composed the 9-minute Deep Time and DeJohnette the 14-minute Song For World Forgiveness.
The seven-disc boxset String Quartets Nos. 1-12 documents 333 minutes of music composed and recorded between 2015 and 2020 by Smith and the Red Koral Quartet (violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violist Andrew McIntosh and cellist Ashley Walters) and with the quintet of Alison Bjorkedal (harp), Anthony Davis (piano), Lynn Vartan (percussion), Stuart Fox (guitar) and Thomas Buckner (voice).
The five-disc boxset The Emerald Duets contains sessions performed different drummers:
51 minutes with Han Bennink (recorded in 2014)
75 minutes with Pheeroan Aklaff
(recorded in 2019 and 2020),
65 minutes with Andrew Cyrille (ditto),
and two sessions (53 minutes and 36 minutes) with Jack DeJohnette (also 2019-20).
Two Centuries (may 2021) features Andrew Cyrille (drums) and Qasim Naqvi on electronics.
Orange Wave Electric (Nels Cline and Brandon Ross on electric guitar, Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs on electric bass, Mauro Refosco on percussion, Pheeroan aKLaff on drumset and Velibor Pedevski on electronics) debuted with Fire Illuminations (recorded in 2022).