Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SMITH, Leo (Ishmael Wadada)

(b 18 December 1941, Leland MS) Trumpet, composer; also other instruments including flugelhorn, flutes, koto, keyboards, etc. His stepfather was Alex 'Little Bill' Wallace, blues singer and guitarist on the radio in the 1950s; Leo studied blues with him, played in his high school band and organized his own group for improvisation. He studied music formally at U.S. Army School of Music and other schools, including ethnic musics of Africa and Asia, and meanwhile joined the AACM in Chicago '67. He worked with ensembles Creative Construction Company with Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton (two LPs on Muse), Integral with Henry Threadgill, Creative Improvisation Ensemble with Marion Brown in Germany: he was seen in a German documentary film with Brown See The Music in 1970. Recorded with Abrams and Maurice McIntyre on Delmark, with Braxton on Freedom and Affinity, with Brown on Impulse, Arista; he settled in Connecticut to compose, and published own albums on Kabell: Creative Music 1 '71 (solo), Reflectativity '74 (an Ellington tribute, with Malachi Favors and Jack DeJohnette, later reissued on Tzadik), Song Of Humanity '76; Solo Music: Akhreanvention; also booklets Notes, Rhythm. As a composer he worked in 'rhythm units'; in this method and in his playing the influence of the blues was evident; he was also influenced by the purity in Miles Davis: the result should be called neoclassical, the silence as important as the music.There were other early albums on Impulse, Moers Music, FMP and CMF.

Spirit Catcher '79 on Nessa included 'The Burning Of Stones' with three harps, whose music was notated while Smith improvised with a mute, its sheer beauty as contemporary music transcending category; 'Images' and the side-long title track had a quintet playing reeds and flutes, vibes, bass, drums as well as Smith's brass. Other albums included Divine Love '79 on ECM (with Lester Bowie, Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Haden, Bobby Naughton, Dwight Andrews), Go In Numbers '80 on Black Saint, Human Rights '82-5 on Kabell (in association with the Icelandic Gramm label): the latter had Thurman Barker and several others in music with lyrics sympathetic to Jah Rastafari, using marimba, koto, synthesizer, guitars, etc: 'Human Rights World Music' was a side-long free improvisation, four other tracks with African, reggae and rock flavours. Rastafari was on Sackville, later on Boxholder. Nessa's lovely Procession Of The Great Ancestry '83 was released on Chief c.'90 (there was a new 24-bit edition on Nessa in 2008) had Naughton again on vibes, Kahil El Zabar on various percussion, others on various tracks; Kulture Jazz '93 on ECM was a solo album produced by Steve Lake; Tao-Njia '96 on Tzadik included eight other musicians.

Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet 2000 on Tzadic reunited him with Favors and DeJohnette, adding Anthony Davis on piano; that quartet's second CD was Year of the Elephant on Pi. Tabligh on Cuneiform Rune was recorded at a three-day festival of Smith's music in Los Angeles, the quartet now including Vijay Iyer on piano, Fender Rhodes and synth, John Lindberg on bass and Shannon Jackson on drums; this was partly a tribute to Miles. Smith had also been working in projects called Yo Miles! with Henry Kaiser (CD on Shanachie by a large group including Lukas Ligeti, son of composer Gyorgi Ligeti; Sky Garden on Cuneiform included John Tchicai among others). Other CDs on Tzadik included Light Upon Light, tone poems with various lineups which he described as his favorite up to that point among his recordings; Luminous Axis, with programmed electronics; and solo Red Sulpher Sky. Taif: Prayer in the Garden of HIjaz is a 28-minute tone poem for trumpet, percussion and string quartet recorded with Anthony Brown and and the Del Sol Quartet at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco March 2008. Ten Freedom Summers 2012 on Cuneiform was a 4-CD set comprising 19 pieces, alternately played by the Southwest Chamber Music octet conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt and the Golden Quartet/Quintet with Smith, Davis, John Lindberg on bass, Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra on drums. A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke 2015 was a duo with Iyer on ECM. America's National Parks was a 2-CD again on Cuneiform, a set of six pieces played with Davis, Lindburg, akLaff, Ashley Walters on cello and video artist Jess Gilbert: one of the pieces was called 'Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park', a tribute to Harvard professor Southern, whose book The Music of Black Americans was a landmark in cultural studies.

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize in 2013.