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True to the Avant-Garde: Wadada Leo Smith

05/20/2013 12:46 EDT | Updated 07/20/2013 05:12 EDT

For acclaimed jazz composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, the avant-garde is much more than a genre in the art world; its imperative of experimentation has been the foundation of his artistic life. Named as one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in music, he was also a multiple nominee in the 2012 Jazz Journalists Association poll.

Ten Freedom Summers, the work recognized by the Pulitzer nod, was hailed as a masterpiece by the jazz and music press after its release in May 2012. It's truly an extraordinary work full of the drama, the emotion and the movement that is America. It can aptly -- and literally -- be called his life's work.

"I started working on it in 1977 -- so it's been 35 years," he says. "I just wrote the notes as they came to me. "

(Image by Michael Jackson)

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The piece is a meditation on 10 pivotal moments in the history of America as it relates to Civil Rights Movement and incorporates both written and improvised material. The various pieces he added along the way were inspired by activists.

"The first piece was commissioned -- it's about Medgar Evers," he recalls. "Over the years, from time to time, I'd write a piece here and there. Even if they didn't commission, I'd write them anyway," he adds. "Over the last five to eight years, it became clear to me that it was a larger work. I began to look for commissions and I was very successful," he recalls. "I got nine different commissions."

It was released on the Cuneiform label and was named the #3 jazz record of the year for 2012 in the Rhapsody Jazz Critics poll and made it to over 70 'best of' lists for the year. The recording is a four disc set, but there were an additional two pieces that didn't make it to the final version.

"The record company didn't want to put out five CDs -- I didn't want to put out five CDs. That's why it's four CDs, 19 pieces." It's still a work in progress, however. "I just recently premiered the most recent piece on May 3 in New York City."

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As a consequence, the length of the performance has been fluid, from over five hours in its world premiere performance in Los Angeles in October 2011 to six hours in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in July 2012 with one more new piece added. During its NYC premiere (May 1 to 3, 2013), he added another movement, this one about the March on Washington in honour of its 50th anniversary.

"At the London Jazz Festival, there's a possibility I'll try to add another piece," he says. "After that I'll back off." By the time he's finished with it, he anticipates that Ten Freedom Summers will comprise about 30 movements in all.

"It takes seven hours to perform over three days," he says. It's a feat that would be exhausting for someone half his 71 years. "It is! It's like America," he laughs. "You start and hope everything goes right. Some don't, but you keep moving. It's like moving a city from one town to the next. It's a major day that starts at 10 o'clock in the morning and ends at 10 in the evening." Still, the rewards are beyond measure. "Each time, for me, it's like a real miracle."

Throughout a decades' long career and nearly 50 recordings he's remained true to his roots in the Chicago avant-garde movement without consideration for the ups and downs of musical trends and fashion that have come in the ensuing years. Is the avant-garde still relevant in our post-modern world? He bristles -- albeit graciously -- at the very question.

"It's the artists that tells the critics and the public when it's finished," he says firmly. "It's not something we select because we've decided that's how we want to sound. It's our conviction." The avant-garde for him encompasses all traditions. "It's all the traditions of society. Society is organic. Art moves forward. It's that sounding board."

"Experimentation is old fashioned? I think they're missing something important. We know it's not dead," he says. "I do take issue when people tell you something is finished. We'll tell you when we're done with it."

The work offers meditations not only on civil rights history and specific events. One section of Ten Freedom Summers is called 'What is Democracy?' "We have these old fashioned ideas. For instance, here in America, we talk about democracy - but we don't have a democracy. There are elements of a democracy," he adds.

As a river made up of all of society's influences, the avant-garde in fact seems the ideal medium to encompass the cacophony that is modern America. "In a large work, you don't present one style or form. We used the blues elements but not the idiom. We used classical elements, but not the idiom." He adds jazz and freeform to the list. "You come into this realization that it's a vast, vast field in which you can take a lot of elements."

Style and genre, in any case, were never among his considerations. "I always felt of myself as a composer, performer, improviser. I've never called myself a jazz man. I make art."

(Image by Steve Gunther)

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And if he was to give advice to the younger generation of jazz musicians he sees trying to make a name for themselves and build careers? "Instead of the idea of a 'career', how about just making art? Something that's real and authentic within society. The larger picture is how society and art face each other. You play the trumpet in society hoping you'll make an impact on somebody, so that they can have a few moments to themselves to reflect and contemplate."

"It has nothing to do with selling and buying," he says, then adds with a chuckle, "although people won't trust you unless you do know how to sell and buy."

Wadada Leo Smith was raised in the American South during the days of the then nascent Civil Rights Movement became an early member of Chicago's famed avant-garde jazz community. He invented a musical notation system called called Anhkrasmation among his many accomplishments.

Wadada has performed and recorded mainly with his own groups and he currently leads four principal ensembles: Mbira, a trio with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and drummer Pheeroan akLaff; the Golden Quartet, including Anthony Davis, John Lindberg and Pheeroan akLaff; Organic, a larger ensemble that consists mainly of electric string instruments; and the Silver Orchestra, which explores Smith's music for large ensemble. He has released nearly 50 albums under either his own or his bands' names on various labels. In addition to the 4-CD Ten Freedom Summers, he also recently released Ancestors, a duo CD with Louis Moholo-Moholo on the TUM label.

Smith has been on faculty at Cal Arts since 1993, where he is director of the African American Improvisational Music Program.

Wadada Leo Smith: Composer/trumpet

Anthony Davis: Piano

John Lindberg: Bass

Pheeroan Aklaff: Drums

Susie Ibarra: Drums