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Performing Arts

A Virtuoso of Variation

Wadada Leo Smith has charted his own path working with a diverse range of musical forms.

November 29, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Descending to the lower level of the music department wing at CalArts, strolling among the practice rooms and classrooms offers visitors a good primer in what the place is all about. Different music comes at you from every direction: a classical chamber group here, a jazz fusion band there, tabla players, an African drum ensemble, all rumbling behind closed doors and merging in the hallways in a sonic whirl. You can readily understand why the catch phrases "multicultural" and "interdisciplinary" easily and honestly float about the institution.

It's a perfectly suitable environment for the likes of faculty member Wadada Leo Smith, 57, one of the more individualistic artists on the Southern California musical landscape. The musician-composer-teacher is perhaps best known as a jazz trumpeter, with a sizable discography and a solid critical reputation, but his broader vision of music extends toward world music and the contemporary classical realm.

Recently, he settled down for an interview in his office, a spare room equipped with a computer, a piano, a tape deck and a phone he's disinclined to answer. Students drop by the office and he disappears for a meeting for a while, but he remains somehow calm and focused in the midst of a self-generated maelstrom of activity.

On the piano is a framed copy of one of Smith's graphic scores, with his special brand of "symbolic notation." Fittingly, the score, which was exhibited at Watts Towers recently, is dedicated to one of his heroes, Charles Ives. It features an elaborate notation system that expresses a personal musical theory he calls Ankhrasmation, which he has been developing for 25 years. Pointing to the piece, with its vertically stacked asymmetrical shapes and delicate linear squiggles, he said, "these symbols here all have psychological as well as physical properties, meaning that they [communicate] things that should be done because of what they look like. But also, imagination carries it into a whole other zone."

Smith has his own creative zone, and it's a complex one. Since he was hired here five years ago, his myriad musical interests have led him into an unusually diverse gamut of settings in Los Angeles. He could be found leading his new musical work, freely laced with improvisation, in the Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series, or playing trumpet in Daniel Rothman's piece "Cezanne's Doubt," on the Monday Evening Concerts series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year. He can also be found in freer improvisational digs in the mostly jazz-rock New Music Monday series, formerly at the Alligator Lounge and now at LunaPark.

The venue-hopping, and his broad-minded sense of music, continues. This week, audiences will hear the world premiere of his string quartet "Black Church: A First World Gathering of the Spirit," performed by Southwest Chamber Music at Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts on Saturday and at the new Zipper Concert Hall in the Colburn School of Performing Arts on Sunday afternoon. Two days later, Smith will show up as the featured artist in the Faultlines concert series at the 24th Street Theater in Los Angeles.

The Faultlines performance will showcase his acoustic N'Da Kulture, a music-poetry group that includes pianist Glenn Horiuchi, tuba player William Roper, bansuri player David Philipson, drummer Sonship Theus and Smith's wife, poet Harumi Makino Smith; and Smith's new electric group, NOK, will make its local debut that night as well.

It all adds up to a musician with ears wide open, and a flexible idea of how various types of music can work together. "I never separated musics into different categories," Smith said. "I always listened to everything. For example, I can listen to a piece of Baroque or Romantic music. I can listen to Delius, the British composer, and I can find new ideas every day in it, even though I know a piece from top to bottom, score-wise and auditory-wise. I find something new in it. It's the same with Debussy.

"Of the European composers, Debussy is the one I love most, and from Asia, Takemitsu. And, from America, Charles Ives. I don't have to look anywhere else. Those composers have it covered. When you put Miles Davis and Ellington in there, you've got it covered."


For Smith, it all started with the blues. He was born in Leland, Miss.; his musical education began at home, listening to jam sessions led by his stepfather, blues guitarist Alex "Little Bill" Wallace. Celebrated musicians such as B.B. King and Little Milton showed up to play, as the fledgling Leo soaked it up, sitting in the corner. "I got a good sense of free socializing and free conversation from musicians in my house," he recalled.

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