I Guess I’ll Call It Serendipity...

I Guess I’ll Call It Serendipity…

I knew little about Wadada Leo Smith, other than that I wanted to know more about him. I was blown away by his clear and direct explanation of his musical philosophy and his method for composing long forms that allow for the greatest creative involvement by the performer vis-à-vis the performer’s simultaneous interpretation of Smith’s “musical language,” Ankhrasmation.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

…and hope I’m using the word correctly.

It started off that I didn’t know what to write about here. I’m done with “cliquing” for the time being (although I know there’s more there) and, while the comments from last week are tempting to use as fodder, I know I must move on. So Monday rolls around and I catch something like the flu, strep throat, bronchitis, the bends, and malaria and can do nothing but sleep, wheeze, hack, and groan until Thursday, when, after I see the doctor, I have an opportunity to take care of everything that didn’t get done (including writing this post) earlier in the week, but that has to be taken care of before I leave town on Sunday. The good news is that I don’t have malaria, the bends, bronchitis, or even strep throat and I’ll probably be over the whole thing by Friday night. The bad news—I had to work Thursday night at a club that has achieved a new low in the treatment of musicians, and I hadn’t even thought about what to write about yet. While it is tempting to discuss the club, I know I have to think it through and probably discuss it with our editorial conscience first. When I told my finer partner in The Institution (you know, the great “I Did”—marriage) about my fears, she suggested that I write about the trip I’ll be embarking on. OK, says I.

Starting Monday, May 7, Yours Truly will be involved in a wonderful little consortium of musicians from different countries and disciplines meeting in Monterrey, México. This will be the 10th annual “Encuentro de Internacional de Músicos de Jazz y Música Viva Monterrey” presented at Conarte and the third that I’ve had the privilege to participate in. Conarte is part of Fundidora Park, a reconfigured steel mill that is now the city’s largest interdisciplinary cultural center. This year’s line up at Conarte includes (for those of you who might remember President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s salutation) My Fellow Americans Lou Grassi (drums, cymbals, and percussion), Herb Robertson (trumpets, trombone, French horn, and mutes), Conny Bauer (trombone), as well as Andreas Willers (guitar) from Germany, Sophia Domancich (piano) from France, Harri Söjström (soprano saxophone) from Finland, Marcos Miranda (soprano saxophone, alto clarinet, and exotic flutes) from Bolivia, and Rémi Álvarez (soprano and tenor saxophones and flute) and Omar Tamez (guitar, effects, and percussion) from México. Tamez, who I have mentioned before and at length in this column, is the person largely responsible for producing the event. He has been travelling a lot lately, since recovering from cancer in 2004, and gaining the respect of the artists he meets and works with in his travels, including percussionist Harvey Sorgen, guitarist Bruce Arnold (they’ve recorded together for Arnold’s MUSE EEK label), and vocalist/composer Katie Bull (who was going to attend this year, but had to bow out).

So I logged onto NewMusicBox to check up on things before I started to write this, and I see the face of Wadada Leo Smith, someone who I know little about other than that I want to know more about him. Tamez and Smith played together earlier this year in Buffalo, New York, and, from what I heard, the two will be involved in projects in the future. I decided to read the Oteri interview with Smith and was blown away by his clear and direct explanation of his musical philosophy and his method for composing long forms that allow for the greatest creative involvement by the performer vis-à-vis the performer’s simultaneous interpretation of Smith’s “musical language,” Ankhrasmation.

As an improvising bassist, I find myself hamstrung by stylistic considerations based on arcane traditions and historical lineage. One of the appealing aspects of jazz is that the music is possibly younger than the recording industry, and its historical lineage and traditions are, for the most part, available for study. One of the drawbacks is that the list of artists huddled under jazz’s awning, often without their consent, produce a music that is so diverse that it’s very difficult to pinpoint what the overarching traditions are. Smith accesses trumpeter Miles Davis as a standard without subcategorizing Davis’s creative output, something that, until very recently, few did. I also found Smith’s inclusion of tonguing, the heart and soul of trumpet playing, included in the interview. I’m usually disappointed to read interviews with musicians who pretend that their technique is secondary to their music. I can understand this approach when the audience hasn’t a clue as to what music is, but I think it shows an utter lack of respect to the music community when a musician won’t even suggest that there’s something about his or her relationship to their instrument that is vital to the music that comes out of it. Furthermore, Smith’s description of the blues as a place where musical personalities meet with no regard to musicological considerations such as scordatura, temperament, tempo, or form was eye-opening. Without resorting to the neo-conservative hyperbole that many jazz studies programs find appealing, Smith gives a no-nonsense explanation of the blues as doin’ the dozens in song.

The thing that struck me as most profound in Smith’s interview was the inclusion of Booker Little’s failed attempts to produce multiphonics on the trumpet as proof of an intention to do so, which makes Little an early proponent of multiphonics on the instrument. This is something that goes almost totally against the grain of musicology, the idea that the intent to do it means it was done. This is an attitude that only works in paradigms that include improvisation as a vital part of making music—even, paradoxically, when the music being performed is pre-composed. I found myself re-reading the comments from last week and essentially agreeing with “improvisation is the beginning and end of all music making.”[1] Miles Davis is attributed to saying, “When you make a mistake, play it again, and then once more just to be sure,” which I think also goes to this point. Finally, in Derek Bailey’s Improvisation Steve Lacy described this in his finest style by answering the question, “In 15 seconds, what’s the difference between composition and improvisation?” with: “In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.”

Which took Lacy exactly 15 seconds to say.[2]

1. Thanks to Andrew Strauss.

2. Thanks to Herb Robertson.

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