Wadada Leo Smith salutes Civil Rights hero Rosa Parks, questions the word improvisation in jazz, and discusses bad soup.
Raised on the Delta blues in his Mississippi birth place and later a member of the Chicago-based collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has driven his stake into the soft earth this past decade as one of the most prolific and creative artists in jazz. He’s had a career collaborating with the diverse likes of Anthony Braxton, Vijay Iyer and John Zorn. But he upped the ante to renowned composer in 2013 when he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his epic piece Ten Freedom Summers (Defining Moments in the History of the United States of America).
Smith has continued to delve deeply, becoming a brilliant avant-tilting jazz hero with such landmark suites as 2014’s The Great Lakes Suites, 2016’s America’s National Parks and this year’s masterwork, Rosa Parks: Pure Love: An Oratorio of Seven Songs, that was released on February 15 in honor of the Civil Rights activist’s February 4 birthday.
A week later and a short time before his Rosa Park oratorio is released, Qwest TV spoke to Smith at his home in New Haven, Connecticut – an hour and a half northeast of New York City — where he composes and hangs with his family.
At Lincoln Center you told the audience that making art is painful. What do you mean by that?
Yes, yes, yes. It’s true. It’s good for you. Everything can’t be easy. If it’s easy, it may not last long. Life is full of easy stuff that doesn’t last long. But the stuff that lasts for a long time comes from suffering. Inside of suffering is the truth.
The backdrops of your most recent projects are musical dedications to places like the Great Lakes and the national parks. Why is that?
There are two most important things on this planet. One is human beings and their relationships and their families which regenerate to make new generations. It’s spiritual. The other is the environment in which we live — the earth and the cycles of transformations it has gone through, like the fact that millions of years ago the land was all ice. But now these days, it’s a whole new environment of being in an extreme weather zone. It’s how we have shaped it not as spiritual human beings but in our own way of destruction.
Why did you decide to compose Pure Love?
I wanted to celebrate Rosa Parks [1913-2005] as a visionary human being and how she sparked a whole revolution based on rights and justice. I wanted to take a closer look at her in our lifetime. She was an activist way before she refused to move to the back of that bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She represents a Civil Rights historical perspective on our struggles here in America. It’s like I wrote in the liner notes, Rosa is with us and will always be amongst the lovers. I wanted to use her words “Knowing what must be done does away with fear” in the song “No Fear” that helps to make Pure Love a prophetic piece of poetry.
Why did you imagine Pure Love as an oratorio?
I wanted to use the song form to express my ideas and my mediation on the Civil Rights movement. I wrote five of the songs when my family went for a vacation to Nantucket as part of a healing process for my daughter [Sarhanna] who had been hit by a car in the middle of a crosswalk by a guy who ran through a stop sign. She almost died. While there I wrote the songs — not writing just to write them, but to capture what I was feeling. I came back home and transformed all the songs and added in two more. It was all about “true lovers fill up their hearts with light and love.”
What is behind the narration of the work?
It’s based on dreaming. There are people all over the world who dream about Rosa. In it, Rosa teaches seven songs. The next morning these people wake up and are able to transmit what was in their dream. And they will be able to teach their parents and their friends. The voices that I selected in the songs represent the universal sphere and the evolution of human relationships. It creates an internal forum that looks at how we can change out society. It’s about moving past a deadlock of political and religious spheres. It’s a much wider parameter of social behavior. It’s about spirituality.
How did you come with such an unusual setting for your group of musicians?
After I came back from Nantucket, I knew what I was looking for: a trumpet quartet [BlueTrumpet Quartet], a string quartet [RedKoral Quartet], three vocalists [Diamond Voices] and an electronics duet [Janus Duo]. I brought all these people in to expand the color and the palette, to make it a much wider piece. Getting those three voices was like a miracle. I didn’t plan it that way, but I have a vocalist of Chinese heritage [Min Xiao-Fen], Mexican heritage [Carmina Escobar] and African-American heritage [Karen Parks]. I didn’t plan it that way. It just happened. But then when I realized what I had, I thought of it as a beautiful utopian voice. I feel like it’s something unique. I can’t think of an historical moment where there were two quartets and a duet and three vocalists. So I felt very empowered that I created that.
You don’t like to use the word improvisation to describe your music. Why?
I use the word create. Improvisation was strong in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But then it got very polluted, like you can put everything into performing that you want to. There’s no leadership, no guidance. It’s nowhere near the way of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith or Abbey Lincoln who were all right in terms of creating opportunities in their music. The people calling themselves improvisers today are like a soup. You can add everything in at once and cook it. But that’s a bad soup. You need to cook various portions and add in different things like spices which is what making music in the present is meant to be. It’s like what the Creator created in the beginning. It’s authenticity. You’re bringing something into being. And besides, no one really has a good definition in any dictionary for improvisation, which gets used a lot in the academic world.
What’s next for you in this prolific period?
I look at how my career has been promoted, starting with John Zorn’s support. He trusted me and was one of the first people to believe I could push my musical projects to a high level. Then there was Cuneiform Records and ECM and now Tum. Right now I’m still busy. My newest project is a major dynamic suite for ECM my group The Golden Quartet about another way of looking at who I am in the relationship of ensemble and musician. It’s been a yearlong project with 12 musicians in five different ensembles. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it could be Passionata, which is an Italian word for great feeling and empathy.
What are you doing now to stay warm in the winter?
I’m home in New Haven with my daughters and grandchildren. I love babysitting once or twice a week. I gave up teaching in 2013. So right now I’m composing music, and I perform maybe between ten or twelve shows a year. At home, I do a little reading, watch a few movies, and make at least three different soups each week – always cooked in the right way.
Wadada Leo Smith, Rosa Parks: Pure Love (TUM Records)