Thursday, May 19, 2011

Understanding music as a matter of intelligence and love

Interview with Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith
Bologna, 7/5/2011
Words + Photos: Gian Paolo Galasi

Panic Jazz Café, Chiostri S. Corona, Vicenza, May 13, 2011
I followed directly Wadada Leo Smith in various live performances since Vitry-Sur-Seine in February. Since then, the trumpet player toured massively through North of Italy: in March he was in Milano with his Organic band (I put a review on Mescalina webzine in my native language), than he played in May (6 to 9) at Angelica Festival, solo, and in a duo with pianist John Tilbury, and finally both of them were in a quartet featuring Pauline Oliveros and Roscoe Mitchell (my photos). Astounding was his quartet performance, with all the musicians taking their parts as main soloist in turn, and the other ones following their stream in answer: very essential, and very fluid at the same time. Then again, one of his most beautiful performances: a duo with Gunther ‘Baby’ Sommer on May, 12 in Padova, in which Wadada played completely acoustic but with a mastery on his sound that would get him out of the boundaries of a trumpet player, even if no effects nor pedals were used, whereas Gunther made his drumset sound sometimes properly as a piano or a melodic instrument, working notably also on layering fore and background with his fellow. The day after, in Vicenza the couple played with Italian pianist Antonello Salis. Though the Italian musician is a master on his own (he played also with Cecil Taylor along with Tony Oxley), that was a harshly nervous performance, with serious interaction problems between the musicians; only in the end they finally played together all at the same time, giving shape to a melancholic, pointillistic and oblique blues … This is part of our conversation at the hotel he stayed in Bologna, followed by an open explanation of his Ankhrasmation musical system, that I deepened a little, as he suggested to me when we had the talk. Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is a great teller, and his ideas could seem simple, but they are amongst those that need an entire life to be developed. It’s a pleasure to listen to him talking as it is hearing him play. I thanks both the musician and his Italian manager Alberto LoFoco for their kindness and support.

I’d like to start our conversation talking about your first compositions, like The Bells and Light of the Dalta, that were on Anthony Braxton’s records [The Bells appears on Delmark’s Three Compositions of New Jazz, whereas Light of the Dalta was issued on Byg’s B-Xo/N-0-1-47a or Composition 6g]Light of the Dalta is an open reference to the blues, and I was thinking about the fact that the first free jazz players, like Ornette Coleman, developed melodically the references to the blues … you were more kind of giving to sound itself, silence and timbre a major relevance … you know, if I have to think about a blues composition that can remind me of your music, that piece would be Dark Was the Night, Cold was the Ground [a Blind Willie Johnson piece, that inspired also musicians as diverse as Ry Cooder, Marc Ribot, Loren Connors and moviemakers like Wim Wenders], where you can hear this guitar chord very prolonged and repeated; so I think that there is also a spiritual aspect, if you will, in developing music that way from the blues … so I wanted to ask you about your references in music, blues, and spirituality, in developing your style with the trumpet …

Teatro San Leonardo, Bologna, May 7, 2011
Ok, the song that you’ve mentioned I don’t really know it, but the blues is a very complex music, that has alternation between a 1/4 and a 5/4, and most people take that to be kind of a progression, but it’s not. A progression has to be at least three of four relationships to a chord, and blues has this alternation between those two relevances that is time to get a dam. Now, what makes that so important is that the blues itself has already built inside of it a notion about freedom, most sentence look tells like that: ‘no refuse, make some happen, or call some to change, all you need is to part to what to change’, I mean, until that part happens. So the blues masters figured out that the most natural relationship between events and objects and humans is true; that for example, if you have a child, he needs a woman; man and woman make appear that from the form; so there’s another phenomenon, of sunrise and sunset; both of them do the same things: sunrise it brings for light, sunset it brings for dawn; so out of both of them it quills like new conditions. So the blues is based off of that, a natural relationship between events, abrupt and hint. Now, my music doesn’t come out quickly as the blues, that little piece, Light of the Dalta, does have motion between the one in the bar, you see … [sings]dabadabadabadabada–bang-da[shifts singing of a major] dabadabadabadabada–bang-da … but, that’s an illusion, is not really blues … I made music like that because of the notion about the Delta, you see, the South, Mississippi has the most famous Delta in America. So Light of the Delta has to do with the way the sun rise in Mississippi where in the Delta, it comes about and it warm, when it rise. And at certain points you as a human being as you’re stand and watch sunrise you tell of being that. And at another point, it comes up midway left by, it comes up to your head; you even look so, and at some point, it passes by your head and move forward, and you know how it moves, you see, and, he goes on like that; it can shatters, an the sunset never it reduce the light; so, that’s what The Light of the Dalta means, it has to do with sunrise, and it’s not really a blues, it has relationship that’s … spiritually, is attempt to the blues, ok?

Ok, so, it has to do with the sun rising on the Dalta, and not with a progression of chords …

No, has nothing to do with chords … y’know, lot of people look at how music should be organised, they reduce to notions about chords and their function…

Yeah, this is a big problem, if we talk about so-called avant-garde jazz, even for people like Charles Mingus, they took many years to understand how his music was working, because musicologists were thinking more about the developing of music in notational terms, more than studying directly his compositions, as we European think about music from 18th century on … I read a good essay on Mingus written in Italy kind of six years ago, by Stefano Zenni [Charles Mingus: Polifonie dell’Universo Afroamericano, Nuovi Equilibri/Stampa Alternativa, 2002], because he was trying to use a different approach, starting from what he wrote on the lines of his records … but maybe, if you want to understand really music, you have to be an artist, like a poet, or a painter …



No, no … I would say that to understand music, it’s a head and a heart, intelligence and love, that’s all it takes …

The most simply things…

Padova, Cinema Teatro Torresino, May 12, 2011
But the most simple is the most complex, and everytime we do comes through those two things: a head, that is intelligence, and a heart, which is really the one’s request to be loved … so really when Mingus remembers whatever they were doing they would come from the same point, basically a head and a heart, and to understand that is all it takes, now artists, and journalists, and poets, and painters, in any kind of profession, they did kind of a special relationship with, but what works not so fair is that relationship that one understands from the head and the heart… Like for example, if I put another photo wide on it it’s still wide but maybe a little bit lighter and a little bit dumb in his right, but it’s still … still wide, you know, so … when people look at music and they took it and put it a way it shows some other view of value, like for example some other who wants to show a relationship between American music and European music, and they take out people like Charles Mingus or anybody, like Roscoe Mitchell, or Anthony Braxton, or Anthony Davis, they take them as if they use the same light, and they use the same kind of head and heart to analyze them, but that has only information from the eighteen, nineteen century, or even twentieth century, now they gonna miss, you totally miss it, you completely miss it, and if you look a fantastic book that is nice to read, but when you get to the conclusion of what it has wrong you made a value mistake, that most of people … that jazz created music, blues … anything that’s in America, the same bop, it came out of the euro century, with some stuff amassed; and that’s a lost, that’s completely lost, because, look at it like this: this is Africa, this is Europe, right? And those people that came from Africa when they came to America they already had knowledge of art, culture, music and count … how do have they had that? As slaves: because those people loved, when they were slaves, they composed music when they were slaves, and they thought about the situation which made them culturally conscious of what they were doing; so when they came that they had this homost that was actually equal to the European homes; and then this blend that happened that was the first melting pot, that’s when you can talk about the euro-century and the afro-century thing, but the moment that a scratch happened, the more you wrote that picture on ragtime, it was all over … and that moment, it had changed completely from this European and this African merge it became stuff on that, it would be no Europe nor Africa to realise, it became creating what the music is, all jazz, all ragtime music, all American music, all this tons of main zones, but the best man for the American music, you know, it’s people like Stockhausen, or Pierre Boulez, it’s all you can mean, not baroque or classical music, or this stuff ...

So the thing is, putting down too much boundaries between styles of music can’t be useful to understand music truly…

I think that … you see, writers write for the same audience, stylists write of the people that are stylists, they don’t write on normal people, you see? Artists that write about music they write for artists. Sometime the individualist economic stand it comes to a pure standpoint and so an artistic standpoint and so much a stylistic standpoint, but they’re not allowed to do it, it’s just those people count on brilliance, so to speak; but in all near places they have better to view wide music than anybody does, because brilliance doesn’t bring another reflection of what they could find among things; but they have in some way to have a way to peep inside of it; they look directly from their heart to your hart, from their head to your head, and they did it. I mean, I can’t burglarize you, because it’s not mean. Don’t mean to burglarize you, and they didn’t. And the most important dime about it is that when they do connect, it transform their life. What it does is to make that point to make it more aware, make it more conscious, and give them more feeling about a human being; that’s the profound change. And how it goes notice this is beautiful? That’s why the spiritual maze is like this, make it so that … spirit don’t have to know when you connect, like, when you came onstage and you’re making that music come out and make happen that feeling in contest connecting with people and the people in the audience they feel it and get connecting with it and sound out feelings and don’t get connecting with it, and sound do feels part of it, like just connecting some of them just with the head, some of them just with the heart, some just connect with even one of them, but the pushing to connect with both the head and the heart and this put intelligence to feel love … they made it, and they don’t even know it. That’s beautiful. I don’t know it; Roscoe doesn’t know it, you know, Miles Davis didn’t know it, nobody knew it, but … you can feel something happened. That’s beautiful. That’s what we call beauty.

An Ankhrasmation score example

Spanning through his career, Wadada Leo Smith not only produced an important amount of recorded works; he also gave shape to a notation system called Ankhrasmation, which merges the idea of composition, improvisation and performance into a single construction. As the trumpet player would say, working on an Ankhrasmation score, every musician has to do a personal research, far from the ensemble playing. As an example, a red half triangle in the score could be taken as a velocity unit. So, every player will determine how fast or slow this unit would be, and nobody will determine it the same way: onstage there will be nine different realisations of that notion. Same with color: red could be a reference for blood, or for cherry, and this reference has to be developed in music; if nine musicians are playing that red, all musicians will have different references about that. And also, the cherry has a skin that’s red, a pin inside of it, and stems coming out of its center. Every player has to develop every part of the cherry. When finally the musicians play together, they have to rehearsal in order to find the right balance, the level of creativity coming out.

Wadada Leo Smith started developing his Ankhrasmation (from "Ankh", the Egyptian word meaning vital life force, "Ras", the Amharic or Northern Ethiopian word for Father, and "Ma", the conventional word for Mother: its sense, is that when Father and Mother procreate, they embody a vital and seminal life force) since his very first composition, “The Bells”, with his work on Rhythm-Units, a concept he started explaining after his residence in Europe since 1967, when he issued the booklet Rhythm: a study in rhythm units in creative music, and then formalized through his following activity as a musician and through his first self-published book notes (8 pieces)/sources of a new/workd/music/music: creative music in 1969. Improvisation #4, from Creative Music No. 1, first issue on Kabell in 1073, paved the way for Ankhrasmation. For full information about Wadada Leo Smith philosophy of music, scores and concepts, check his official website.

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