I’ve written often here and in The Wall Street Journal about trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. That frequency is partly due to the fact that Smith is so prolific a musician, but it’s mostly it’s because his music and its surrounding aesthetic are so fascinating, deep, distinctive and ever in forward motion.
Recently, I posted about Smith’s residency in New Orleans (and mine) through the New Quorum, and delved into the working of the musical system he named “Ankhrasmation.”
You can find my Wall Street Journal piece about Smith’s March collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer, “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke,” here, and an older article of mine about his sprawling “Ten Freedom Summers” here.
Smith’s project with Iyer was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and inspired by the work of visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Yet Smith himself is a formidable visual artist, mostly by way of what he calls the “language scores” that he creates to guide each musical piece, and which, he says, are specific to each individual performance of that piece.
These are striking works of diligent and creative visual representation, made all the more fascinating by their functional value to musicians.
Last year in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Smith was an early and important member, Chicago’s Renaissance Society mounted an exhibition of these scores.
Now, within “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,” the third biennial at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, Smith’s Ankhrasmation scores are on view through August 28.
According to the exhibit’s accompanying text, “Ankhrasmation blossomed in Southern California, where Smith relocated in 1993, joining the faculty at California Institute of the Arts.”
“Each Made in L.A. sheds a new light on the work being made by Los Angeles artists, expanding on previous versions of the exhibition,” saidHammer Museum director Ann Philbin. “Made in L.A. 2016 investigates what is vital and distinctive about this city as an international destination and cutting edge art center, and how its artists-from vastly different backgrounds and disciplines-resist and defy categorization.”
Here’s the wall text about Wadada from the Made in L.A. Exhibition and some installation images of Wadada’s works:
Wadada Leo Smith is a performer and composer in equal measure, having taken up both trumpet and writing music at the age of twelve. Smith was a formidable presence in the free jazz scene of the late 1960s, the period when he developed a form of musical notation he refers to as Ankhrasmation, a word combining ankh (an ancient Egyptian symbol meaning life force), ras (father), and ma (mother).
Ankhrasmation began as a cuneiform-like notation in which Smith abandoned instrumentation, meter, and choice of notes, making it a framework not so much for what to play as for how and when to play it. Rather than notes, Ankhrasmation privileges discrete moments of activity, for which he provided only general determinants: number and duration of notes, tempo, pitch, and phrase length. The notation’s signature glyph is the pennant, referred to as a velocity unit. It is a signpost for the intensity of activity. Depending on whether the triangular portion is filled in or accompanied by a horizontal dash across its stem, a velocity unit can call for a rapid burst of notes or prompt a lithe melody.
This selection of scores dates from 1967 to 2014. While it took root during Smith’s years in New Haven, Connecticut, Ankhrasmation blossomed in Southern California, where he relocated in 1993, joining the faculty at California Institute of the Arts. The move west coincided with a wholesale expansion in his use of color, repertoire of signs, and compositional approaches to the page as a whole. Some are defined by large blocks of color and bold singular shapes, either geometric or calligraphic in nature. Others resemble a schematic for what could be a fourth law of thermodynamics. In any case, Smith’s latter-day output only confirms what Ankhrasmation has been all along, namely a cosmology, a meditation about creation in the human and intergalactic sense.
In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Allen Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of hits who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals.
As a composer, lyricist, arranger, producer, pianist and singer, his music reached far and wide enough to earn induction into the Rock and Roll and the Blues Hall of Fames, as well as a National Medal of the Arts in 2013. It spoke most clearly of and to New Orleans, where Toussaint was born in 1938 and where he remained until his unexpected death at 77 last November, save for a temporary relocation to New York City following the flood that resulted from the levee breaches following Hurricane Katrina. (My last piece on Toussaint is here.)
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York for this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I received an advance copy of “American Tunes,” released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles.
Toussaint belongs in that lineage of pianists who define certain aspects of what New Orleans was, is and always will be—Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Henry Butler and so on. That roll call of pianists eventually leads you to Tom McDermott, whose sensitivity, breadth and depth of knowledge and skill has makes him a distinctive force on the city’s current scene.
McDermott has big but discerning ears for music and, when he cares to, he writes about what he hears in illuminating ways.
Such is the case with McDermott’s review for Offbeat magazine of “American Tunes.” Continue reading “Listening to Allen Toussaint's Posthumous CD Through Tom McDermott's Ears”
The title of drummer Dafnis Prieto‘s new book is “A World of Rhythmic Possibilities.”
Prieto—who is a marvelous drummer, inventive bandleader, indispensable sideman to many and a composer of rare grace and subtlety—means this primer as instruction, but not in his technique or any one given approach. Rather, it is a key to unlock that world of possibilities.
When the MacArthur Foundation named Prieto as a Fellow in 2011 (the so-called “genius grant”), the announcement correctly credited Prieto’s “rhythmically adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies” and noted that he “transposes elements from his Afro-Cuban musical heritage onto a jazz drum kit.”
When I first wrote about him in The Wall Street Journal, Prieto described his initial impression of New York City, his adopted hometown since 1999, “To be honest, it wasn’t really my cup of tea.” New York was different from Barcelona, where he’d spent the previous year, and a far cry from Havana, where he attended the National School of Music. It seemed a world away from Santa Clara, his hometown—”a small Cuban city, very colonial and musical,” he called it—where he first picked up a guitar, and then bongos, before moving on to the trap set with which he’s earned distinction. “Especially in New York, the world keeps getting smaller,” he said. “So my music keeps getting bigger.”
And yet Prieto’s expansive world—the one represented in part by his wonderful 2015 release, “Triangles and Circles” and by his innovative Proverb Trio—and the ones he hopes to awaken in his readers speak not just of crossing geographic borders but also of deepening inner truths.
Prieto’s primer is not only for musicians. Hence his subtitle: “An Analytical and Instructional Book For Drummers, Percussionists and Lovers of Rhythm.”
It’s philosophical as much as practical.
For me, the pull-quote to this sample passage, “Playing What We Want to Hear,” comes at the end:
Playing what we want to hear is much more than hitting the Drums in an arbitrary way. Hence, it is fundamentally related to a deep understanding of sound that is gained through a meticulous process of listening for the sounds both inside and outside of ourselves.
There are still events that force me to check my cynicism at the door.
The annual NEA Jazz Masters Awards counts among them.
I may sometimes disagree with the choices of recipients, but never with the purpose: to honor individuals—musicians and advocates— for their lifetime achievements and exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz.
Usually, the annual celebrations help me reflect on the range of personalities and personal interpretations that end up defining jazz and shaping both its legacy and forward flow. Here’s my coverage of the annual celebrations in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Each 2017 NEA Jazz Master will receive a $25,000 award and be honored at a tribute concert on Monday, April 3, 2017, produced in collaboration with the Kennedy Center. Here are the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters, with brief biographies provided by the NEA:Continue reading “NEA Names 2017 Jazz Masters”
The story of David Baker, who died at 84 on March 26, is indelible for many reasons.
As a composer, educator, trombonist and cellist, he was named both a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000 and a Living Jazz Legend by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2007.
I was first drawn to Baker’s music through the 1987 premiere of “Ellingtones,” which featured the New York Philharmonic, conducted by James DePreist, and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, in a trio with pianist Tommy Flanagan and bassist Ron Carter. I’d never heard jazz in such a classical setting before.
And I’d never heard a musical voice like Baker’s as composer. The experience sent me backward and then forward through Baker’s recordings, and it opened my mind.
Baker’s bold creativity was evident from the start of his career, and especially through his work as trombonist and composer on a series of groundbreaking recordings by pianist and composer George Russell. His resilience and persistence was singularly inspiring. As Margalit Fox noted in a New York Times obituary:
Mr. Baker’s laurels are all the more noteworthy in that he had been forced to reinvent his musical career three times: first when he was barred from making his way as a classical trombonist because of his race; second when, as a jazzman, he had to forsake the trombone after a devastating jaw injury; and third when he was driven from a teaching job because he had married a white woman.
And yet Baker leapt over any and all barriers, and ultimately combined all his interests and aspirations. He helped articulate an understanding of jazz as an expression of Black culture, and, as Fox notes, he “helped bring jazz studies into the academy at a time when the ivory tower considered the field infra dig.”
In fact, Baker’s greatest legacy is perhaps expressed through the courses of study and consciousness he established at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where he was distinguished professor.
Now, friends of Baker, with the support of his widow, are putting together a recording titled Basically Baker Volume 2: The Big Band Music of David Baker featuring the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. All proceeds generated by sales of the recording will go directly to the David N. Baker Scholarship Fund to provide a financial means for prospective students to attend the Jacobs School of Music Jazz Studies Program. The CD will be released by Patois Records. An added feature of this project is the rerelease of “Basically Baker, Vol I,” recorded in 2005, which made Downbeat Magazine’s “100 best Recordings of the Decade” list in 2010. To support this worthy project, go here—and do it now: The indiegogo campaign ends June 12.
Here’s my brief interview with Brent Wallarab, who played under Baker’s direction with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and teaches at the Jacobs School, about his mentor’s legacy. Continue reading “Help Honor and Extend David Baker's Towering Legacy”