The darker blocks within the wood floor of happylucky no. 1, an art gallery and community arts space in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, spell out the name of the place in morse code, according to Liane Fredel.
Fredel, the former graphic designer who bought the space five years ago, renovated it to express, “an inviting concept, open but with an air of mystery,” she said, and she intends it to foster “more than just art, but rather a larger sense of culture.”
There is no sign outside announcing the place. There is, however a website, that offers this by way of description:
…a gray, fishscaly building…. The façade is marked by a door and a yellow neon dandelion. We are not exactly sure what happens, or what will happen, within the elongated rectangular box that is the interior of happylucky no. 1. Vaguely speaking, there will be events, exhibitions and experiments, the subjects/results of which might occasionally be edible, or medicinal.
There will be things on the walls and floors and floating through the air; sights, sounds and ideas requesting your assistance in their propagation. There will be triumphs and, as this is a human endeavor, the occasional disaster.
All of the above—the subtly encoded messages, the overarching mission and the blend of seriousness and humor—make happylucky no. 1 a fitting home for the latest iteration of The Stone— which began as a tiny but influential East Village performance space in an unmarked windowless former Chinese restaurant, founded by John Zorn in 2005 to present experimental music, and that has grown into a somewhat sprawling initiative.
Buy a ticket here.
Read on, and find out why you just did.
A New York Times Magazine piece by Rachel L. Swarns in April of this year bore the headline: “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”
That university is hardly exceptional in its discovery or the issues it faces.
In the context of a consciouness that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, Ned and Constance Sublette’s long, rich and meticulously researched book, “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry” (Chicago Review Press) tells the harrowing and necessary story of how black lives mattered to a still-formative United States of America—as not just forced labor, but also product and currency.
At a moment when presidential candidates argue about jobs, the economy, race relations, international affairs and our country’s moral direction, the Sublettes show how all those issues were rolled into the single ugly truth on which much of what some seek to “make great again” was, well, made great.
As the publisher’s description states, the book offers “a provocative vision of US history from earliest colonial times through emancipation,” centered around “the brutal story of how the slavery industry made the reproductive labor of the people it referred to as ‘breeding women’ essential to the young country’s expansion. Captive African Americans in the slave nation were not only laborers but merchandise and collateral all at once. In a land without silver, gold, or trustworthy paper money, their children and their children’s children into perpetuity were used as human savings accounts that functioned as the basis of money and credit in a market premised on the continual expansion of slavery.”
I’ve written widely about Ned Sublette’s previous books. (You can find my reviews of his excellent books on New Orleans here and here.) In those volumes, and in “Cuba and Its Music,” ideas about cultural history are expressed via music against a common backdrop of the slave trade throughout the Western hemisphere.
Somewhere around the 400th of the 673 pages of narrative in “The American Slave Coast,” the Sublettes delve into the white supremacist leanings of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for what would become our national anthem, including the rarely heard and objectionable third verse.
Music in this book, too, as is, in a larger sense, the long song of racism that still hums through life in the United States. I’ve also written about Sublette’s own propensity toward writing songs (one of which was covered by Willie Nelson). It seems only natural to recite the elements of “The American Slave Coast” as spoken-word poetry. Why not set it to music? That’s what the Sublettes are doing—for one night only, at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Friday, October 28:
“The American Slave Coast: Live” is a spoken word-and-music performance piece drawn from the pages of the book. Alto saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison will lead the band. Speakers will include Jonathan Demme, Nona Hendryx and Carl Hancock Rux.
Harrison, who is among the most important jazz musicians of my generation, is also uniquely qualified for this gig. Aside from leading jazz ensembles (he’ll lead a fine one at Symphony Space), he is, in his hometown of New Orleans, Big Chief of Congo Nation, which claims as its spiritual home Congo Square; enslaved Africans once drummed and danced there on Sundays, but until 2011, the city officially called the site “Beauregard Square,” in honor of a Confederate general.
Come join me on Oct. 28.
Meantime, here’s a brief interview with Ned and Constance Sublette.
When you two began working on this book, did you envision it in other forms?
Ned: We formally began work on it as a project in 2010. It took five years, plus now that it’s been out for a year we’ve been taking it around and doing events, so six years now. I hope this performance can be the beginning of a new cycle of events for it. Maybe we can even make it into a movie. Did you ever imagine the book would be so timely and resonant with daily news?
Ned: I think we did, though we didn’t know how it would play out. At the time we were more worried about getting lost in the Civil War sesquicentennial deluge of books, which is now over. I think the sesquicentennial was an interesting moment that — for the people who have been reading, paying attention, trying to understand — marked a new sophistication in our collective understanding of American history with slavery at its core.
It’s been astounding watching our book come to life in the news, in one way or another, in the last couple of years, right down to the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is in there. Every generation has different questions that they look to history to answer, and this is the history we need to know right now.
Also, between the greater availability of research material in the post-Google era and the investigations of a new generation of scholars, we’re seeing all kinds of historians do really interesting work. So I see this book as part of a movement of greater awareness of this issue.
Constance: During the course of researching this book I became more and more aware of our present situation as a war on people of color. I became aware of white privilege in a way I never had before. Why did you need to bring this from the page to the stage?
Ned: It seemed like a natural step to me. There are lots of people who are never going to read a 673-page book but who might sit down and watch a performance version.
I love the idea of discourse with music. I’ve been producing episodes of the public radio program Afropop Worldwide since 1990, and that’s what we do, juxtaposing narration and musical beds, so after 25 years of cross-fades, it seemed very natural for me to imagine our text flowing back and forth with music, kind of like a living audiobook or a radio version.
This is my fourth book, and I’ve learned that you have to go out and perform your book, one way or another, after it’s published, so from the very beginning of working on The American Slave Coast, I was thinking of how to perform it.
Constance: We had to comb out all the bits that would make no sense to an audience hearing it without the context of the whole book. Fortunately, we’ve been reading parts of the script ourselves on tour, which helped a lot and gave us a chance to workshop it a little. On our book tours, at every stop, always, the Q & A at the end of a reading was transformational of the content, with all the varieties of communities that were present at our events — brilliant, passionate, people with their own insights. Does this presentation change the meaning of The American Slave Coast?
Constance: No. But it adds the dimension of actually hearing the voices that are in our text. It’s a tapestry of voices, so we hear from slave narratives — Charles Ball, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Louis Hughes — as well as a unique letter from 1853, written by a woman named Virginia Boyd who was being held for sale in a slave trader’s yard in Houston in 1853. And there are voices from the Fisk University and WPA oral histories. Plus everybody from Andrew Jackson to Karl Marx to contemporary scholars.
Ned: Second that. This is a really exciting group of speakers to work with. There exists an audiobook (from Tantor) of The American Slave Coast — no music, just straight narration by Robin Ray Eller — and it takes up, like, 25 CDs. So obviously we can’t cover but a small part of what’s in the book. In my mind the full musical version exists and I would happily go on staging scene after scene. Any idea what Donald Harrison will play?
Ned: I have no idea, other than that he’ll be working with a quintet that will have [guitarist/banjoist] Detroit Brooks and [pianist] Zaccai Curtis in it. I’ll hear the music the night before the show, and we’ll hear it together with the seven voices on the day of, and then we do it, and then it’s over. Blink and you miss it. We’ve talked in general terms about what he would do, but I don’t know how he will respond to those conversations or to the script. Whatever he does will by definition be right.
I remember Donald from when he used to live in Brooklyn. I’d seen him play with Eddie Palmieri a bunch of times. But I didn’t get to know him until Constance and I moved to New Orleans for a very significant year in 2004. When I saw him in action as a Big Chief on Mardi Gras day 2005, I was knocked out, and his post-Katrina 2006 procession was the setting for the finale of my book The World That Made New Orleans. I asked him if he would do this like, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, and he said yes. He was my first choice for composer, and I didn’t have a second choice. The way I see it, he brings the music, but he also brings moral authority. As do all the vocalists.
During my first of four sessions of “NYC: The Afro-Cuban Beat” at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, saxophonist and chekere player Yosvany Terry shared, among other things: secrets from his birthplace, Cuba’s Camagüey province; lessons from his father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry, a violinist and master of the chekeré; and new unreleased music from his innovative collective, Bohemian Trio.
If you missed all that, you’ll want to make it to the museum on Tuesday, October 18.
It will be an especially powerful session, thanks to the presence of pianist David Virelles and percussonist Román Díaz, two musicians who have invigorated the New York scene in several ways, including while playing together. The premise of my series is that Afro-Cuban traditions (not just rhythms, despite my title) have always coursed through New York City jazz; my “beat” covering that scene has revealed a recent flowering of that connection and its possibilities.
We’ll have discussion, recorded excerpts and live duo performance. Suggested $10 donation.
Here’s more on the program: History, Mystery and Modernism: Pianist and composer David Virelles mines traditions of his native Santiago, Cuba, while using his current home in Brooklyn as a base for some of New York’s most striking and progressive music. Since coming to the U.S. in 1999, master percussionist, scholar and composer Román Díaz has been mentor to many musicians, key player in several ensembles, a spiritual guide to wide-ranging scene. Virelles and Díaz will discuss and demonstrate and discuss how musicology, mysticism and Cuban culture combine in their music.
I’ve written widely about both musicians. Here’s a blog piece on Díaz (which includes an embedded video from his Thursday night midnight rumba at Zinc Bar; and a Wall Street Journal profile of Virelles. Both articles out-of-date by now (these guys never stand still); we’ll be discussing what gave rise to thier music and how it continues to grow.
Here’s what’s coming up in the series in November: November 7: The Conversation Continued: Grammy-winning pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill reflects on: the journey of his father, composer Chico O’Farrill, from Cuba to Manhattan; his own journeys in reverse; the founding and development of his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra; the present diplomatic embrace between the U.S. and Cuba; and his dream of an expansive, borderless musical tradition. November 15: New Yor-Uba, Then and Now: More than 30 years ago, pianist and composer Michele Rosewoman’s parallel paths—jazz and Afro-Cuban folklore—merged into a compelling whole in New York through her New Yor-Uba ensemble. Rosewoman will describe the awakening that led to that group, remember her studies with the late Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, and explain the cross-generational way in which she has rekindled that group’s flame. About that special offer:
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem invites you to its 2nd Annual Harlem Shout Fall Benefit Concert featuring Grammy nominated Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez his quartet at the historic Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem on Nov. 1.
Proceeds go towards supporting ongoing free Jazz for Curious Listeners programming and Born in Harlem education programs for Upper Manhattan schools.
I’ve written about Pedrito often. Of course, he’d be a great addition to my conversation series. Then again, he says it all with his drums, his chants and his band. Also, good as his band has been, I’m told that the wondeful Yunior Terry (brother of Yosvany) is now the group’s bassist; that news gives me chills.
While supplies last (as they say on TV), the Museum is offering 50% to Blu Notes readers at this link. See you there.
In honor of Columbus Day—a holiday I can neither grasp nor endorse save for the joy of suspended alternate-side parking in my neighborhood—here’s a celebration from Nicholas Payton—”The Egyptian Second Line” (two versions, in fact).
I first met Payton, a trumpeter, keyboardist and singer, while he was still in his teens (he’s 43 now). He was supporting pianist Ellis Marsalis in a band assembled for a morning TV show. It was the sort of publicity event that, 20-some-odd-years ago, supported the idea of a nascent neo-traditionalist jazz renaissance (with Payton as the latest young lion to follow in Louis Armstrong’s—and perhaps Ellis’s son Wynton’s—wake).
Payton had soaked in his history and his tradition, for sure, not least from his father, bassist and sousaphonist Walter Payton.
In the decades since, Payton has distinguished himself as a musician who questions categories and even the dogma of accepted history as much as, well, Armstrong did (do some research at the Armstrong House museum, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about).
Payton is an intense and restless soul, and his thoughts and feelings spill forth with self-assuredness and defiant pride through both his music and his online posts. His music should probably raise more eyebrows than it does because, aside from its integrity and range, it generally doesn’t respect the party line heeded by many so-called jazz musicians. Payton’s blog posts—in which, among other stances, he refuses to wear the term “jazz,” and instead favors the acronym BAM (for Black American Music)—perhaps shouldn’t raise as many eyebrows as they have. At least, these missives can’t be dismissed as rants, which they’re not, or even radical, which they’re also not. The musicians involved in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) said pretty much the same things 50 years ago.
I’ll not get into a long catalog of what Payton has written online and what was then written about him and what he then wrote in response (though it’s easy enough, and illuminating, to follow that chronology). Yes, it’s about race as much as music, as it should be: Yet whereas, say, the comments appended to articles in the Times Picayune of Payton’s hometown discusses race in a lowest-common-denominator who-can-hate-more style, Payton channels his own feelings (sometimes, yes, rage) into the sort of truth-telling that black trumpeters born and raised in the United States have long done. Amstrong and Miles Davis weren’t enamored with the term “jazz” either. In a March post titled “#WorldSoWhite,” Payton wrote:
“Louis bowed and scraped so Miles could turn his back.”
He’s right about that.
And still, let’s not let all that distract our attention from Payton’s music, which keeps coming and never stays put.
Through an arrangement with his own music label, Paytone, Ropeadope Records will reissue five of Payton’s recordings and plans to release his “Afro-Carribean Mixtape.” (You can find his catalog at pantone.bandcamp.com.)
The label describes the forthcoming release as “an exploration into the history of the African diaspora as it follows the original trade routes to this hemisphere”—which must naturally involve the slave trade. Ropeadope released a download of Payton’s single, “The Egyptian Second Line,”on Friday, October 7th as “a poignant statement in advance of Columbus Day, as much of the nation questions the version of history handed down by the colonists.”
The stuff is deeply funky, simple on the surface in both groove and structure, yet embedded with a complex and shifting set of cues, clues and hues, most through a dense layering of samples.
I’ll not say more about it until I listen more. And perhaps not until I get the whole album and can pen a proper review.
But here’s what Payton wrote about what’s in the mix:
In the spirit of reclaiming that which colonization sought to destroy, I’m releasing the first single from my upcoming album Afro-Caribbean Mixtape at the top of Columbus Day weekend. Like a piece of African patchwork, this track is comprised of a lot of different elements — some old, some new. The main body of this record was constructed from the end vamp of a tune I wrote for Dr. Greg Carr (chair of African-American studies at Howard University) called, “Kimathi.” In fact, throughout the piece, you can hear my turntablist, DJ Lady Fingaz, scratching a sample I chopped from one of his interviews. I constructed a new work by cutting and pasting the best moments of Kevin Hays and I playing keyboards on top of the extended jam, and superimposed that over the groove laid down by bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Joe Dyson, and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. I did this with the help of my mix engineer, Blake Leyh (The Wire, Treme).
Towards the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a chant from vocalists Yolanda Robinson, Jolynda Phillips, and Christina Machado. It’s from a thing my father made up while walking through his childhood neighborhood of 13th Ward New Orleans back in the 1940s, “Na-na ni-ta ho-ho. Left, right. Left, right.” Thirty years later, as an elementary school band teacher at McDonogh #15, he had us chant this whenever we marched in second line parades. It recalls the syllabic prayers of ancient languages used in modern dance songs like Mani Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” of which Michael Jackson borrowed for “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.”
The centerpiece of the single is a poem I wrote back in 2006 in the aftermath of the flood commonly referred to as “Katrina.” It’s called “The Egyptian Second Line,” recited by Nicole Sweeney, a deejay at WBGO. The gist of it toys with the theory that somehow Africans submitted to slavery in an attempt to become better versions of themselves. After the ladies chirp the hook, I step away from the keyboards and embrace the instrument I’m most known for — the trumpet — and blow a few before we take it out. With this song, I am channeling the energy of the ancestors to help give Africa back to herself in the best way I know how, through the power of music.
In New Orleans, a “second line” is the procession where we dance in the streets to music played by a brass band to celebrate either life or death. When I think about what an Egyptian second line looks like, I think of the imagery of that photo of Louis Armstrong serenading his wife, Lucille in front of the Sphinx — again Africans giving Africa back to herself.
Come join me in Harlem this Fall for some exciting and free-of-charge events.
I’m thrilled to extend my long relationship with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem with a new series of discussions and listening sessions at the museum’s lovely new location on West 129th Street—NYC: The Afro-Cuban Beat.
My previous programs at NJMIH focused on New Orleans since the flood; these were low-key, in-depth and always highly charged conversations, rich with audience participation and musical interludes.
This new series explores a current flowering of Afro-Cuban influence along New York’s jazz landscape. My guests include: Yosvany Terry (September 22:); David Virelles and Román Díaz (October 18:); Arturo O’Farrill (November 7); and Michele Rosewoman (November 15). Details and links below. Continue reading “Join Me for "NYC: The Afro-Cuban Beat" @ The National Jazz Museum in Harlem (Admission is Free)”
Pick Hit: Marc RibotThe Young Philadelphians: Live in Tokyo (Yellowbird, just released)
It’s hard to imagine something musical that guitarist Marc Ribot couldn’t do—or wouldn’t wish to.
That’s not to say that Ribot is eclectic, or that he lacks discernment. Far from it; he doesn’t dabble. He just likes many different styles of music for many different reasons. His technique is so sharp and profound, his sonic identity so strong, that all of his music, whatever it taps into, seems grounded in a single expansive concept reflective of these qualities: an improvisational credo drawn from jazz; a toughness and urgency that owes to punk and early rock; and a devotion to detail that can found wherever serious musicians gather.
Ribot describes his Young Philadelphians band in his liner notes as “where deco meets disco meets decon,” in tribute to twin legacies: “The mind-blowing harmolodic punk-funk of Ornette Coleman’s first Prime Time band and the sweet, optimistic pulse of 1970s Philly soul.”
He’s got bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston, both Prime Time alumni, in tow here, along with fellow guitarist Mary Halvorson and a 3-piece string section. Ribot is celebrating a moment, now some 40 years old, “before dance went digital,” reinventing hits like Silver Convention’s “Fly, Robin, Fly,” Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love TKO,” and, yes, Van McCoy’s “The Hustle.” Did you have to ask? Of course, they play “TSOP (The Sounds of Philadelphia)” by MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother—if that’s really what it meant…)
I grew up on and danced to this soundtrack in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. This stuff was a guilty pleasure for me, long suppressed, now released from its dated trappings and its too-rigid disco beat by Ribot and company. They isolate both the inner grit and the pleasing naivete these songs managed to balance. And they invest these worthy pop confections (I’d forgotten how lovely some of these string lines are) with fresh fissures of noise and threads of wild invention.
This is no retro shtick. There’s nothing ironic about it. And why not honor both Ornette Coleman and Van McCoy at once (if you’ve got the chops and the love to do it). What else am I listening to now?Continue reading “Now Playing: Pick Hits and Forthcoming Albums”
It came as no surprise to me when Adam O’Farrill placed in the top three at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Trumpet Competition two years ago, at the tender age of 19. I’d seen and heard him four years earlier, onstage at Havana’s Mella Theater, standing toe-to-toe with Cuba’s finest young trumpeters, all several years his elder, holding his own and flashing a harmonic knowledge they lacked, while on tour with the orchestra led by his father, pianist Arturo O’Farrill.
And it comes as no suprise to me that O’Farrill’s debut recording as a leader, “Stranger Days” (Sunnyside) is finely honed, witty, deep, soulful and hip—it’s marked by his casual yet authoritative command of his instrument but also much more, especially a coherent group concept. O’Farrill has been dropping hints for some time now: on previous recordings in bands co-led with his older brother, drummer Zack O’Farrill; on small-ensemble dates led by his dad; on saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s recent “Bird Calls”; and on various gigs within the community of like-minded musicians within which he stands out. He impresses yet again within a quartet led by bassist Stephan Crump on the forthcoming CD, “Rhombal” (Papillon Sounds), which I’ve just dug into.
I concur with Nate Chinen, who, in his review, called O’Farrill’s new CD “a potent declaration of independence, as much as it is a glowing indication of promise.”
And with Steve Futterman who, writing in The New Yorker, cited it as “the kind of début recording that a burgeoning young bandleader can take special pride in.” Futterman explained, “His lean two-horns-bass-and-drums quartet sounds like an actual working ensemble, his compositions announce themselves as memorable tunes worth returning to, his musical overview is expansive and inviting, and his own smart playing balances passion and restraint.”
That’s how it sounded live, too, during a CD-release performance at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery earlier this month. Only the tunes seemed to be evolving, as they do in any good band’s hands. The humor embedded in “A&R Italian Eatery,” which reminds me a bit of Carla Bley’s music, sounded more pronounced. The hints of hiphop rhythm within the swing of one new tune arrived as a jolt of surprise.
The success of Adam O’Farrill’s band relies not just on his bright, round and supple tone (he plays dark and muddy too) and his penchant for pithy and unconventional compositions. It’s a band achievement, owing to his strong communion with tenor saxophonist Walter Stinson (who also composes for the group), and to the flexible and propulsive combination of bassist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and Zack O’Farrill.
Zack is an unusual drummer: His touch is disarmingly light, which can sometimes conceal just how deeply swinging a pocket he helps craft, and his ideas are often pleasingly odd, in the sense that, say, Paul Motian’s were. He’s a secret weapon here, as is usually true of desirable trapsmen and benevolent older siblings.
Both Adam and Zack come to music with some serious legacy. Their dad, Arturo is a Grammy-winning pianist and founder of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was a renowned composer, arranger and bandleader whose “Afro Cuban Jazz Suite” combined jazz, Cuban and European classical forms in startling fashion.
Yet listening to this generation of O’Farrills in Adam’s new band is to sense not the weight of the past but the lightness of pure possibility, not to mention joy.
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.