leo smith | new delta ahkri – reflectativity



Leo Smith / trumpet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet, Indian and bamboo flutes, percussion, Anthony Davis / piano, Wes Brown / bass, Ghanian flute.

Recorded: November 22, 1974 in concert.

In his book, Notes (8 Pieces), Leo Smith puts forth a fairly radical conception of music. He sees each player/improviser as “a complete unit with each having his or her own center” and responding “only to that which he is creating within himself instead of responding to the total creative energy of the different units.” This, Leo says, “frees the sound-rhythm elements in an improvisation from being realized through dependent reaction.” Further, he says, “each single sound-rhythm, or a series of sound-rhythm is a complete improvisation… each element is autonomous… therefore, there is no intent towards time as a period of development. Rather, time is employed as an element of space.” Rhythm is made reference to in its “absoluteness: the sum of the elements and the placement of them.” There is also no real composition, for even “though an improviser may create and notate certain types of symbols and forms in which to retain creative music… any elements of improvisation that are notated are but mere forms to be exploited by creative improvisers.” So: each player is independent, each sound (or series of sounds) is independent; rhythm exists mainly in retrospect, as the sum of independent elements; and composition, as it were, exists only as pre-determined (open) form.


Reflectativity mirrors these concepts, but the balance of the elements involved is more weighted toward form than one might have expected. Admittedly, the form is loose and the transitions smooth, but upon reflection, the music mainly breaks down into a series of events. (This makes the pieces seem more linear in design than I aspect they actually are.) This might be less apparent if one player or another did not tend to stand out in each of the “sections,” or if there was not frequently a sense of two of the three players “accompanying” the other. More to the point, though all of the musicians play quite well, only Smith seems totally comfortable as a completely independent creative unit. Davis and Brown – when they are not in the forefront themselves – often exist more as an extension of the trumpet lead, adding a fragmented running commentary, than they exist as full co-equal voices. This is perhaps more true of “Reflectativity” (side A) than of “t wmukl-D” (side B) for in the latter composition there does emerge midway into the piece something of a sense of true collective improvisation. As a result, it is the latter piece that comes off as the more complex of the two.

Yet Reflectativity impresses as a fine record, beautiful in its affirmation of sound and space and important in its practical attempt to find solutions to pressing musical/philosophical problems. Its formal tendencies, though apparent, are certainly not predictable, and this is true of Leo’s playing itself. In fact, it is Smith’s fine formal sense that is the cornerstone of his work and that makes him – compositional abilities aside – one of the more important, if unrecognized, contemporary exponents of the trumpet. There is real substance to what he creates, and he is consistently busy exploring the uses to which sound can be put. If these pieces are not yet the fullest realization of his larger aesthetic concepts, then there is only that much more we can look forward to hearing.

Henry Kuntz, 1975


selected Leo Smith recordings:


Leo Smith biography:

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith (18 December 1941 in Leland, Mississippi) is a trumpeter and composer working primarily in the fields of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. He started out playing drums, mellophone and French horn before he settled on the trumpet. He played in various R&B groups and by 1967 became a member of the AACM and co-founded the Creative Construction Company, a trio with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton. In 1971 Smith formed his own label, Kabell. He also formed another band, the New Dalta Ahkri, with members including Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis and Oliver Lake.

In the 1970s Smith studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. He played again with Anthony Braxton as well as recording with Derek Bailey’s Company. In the mid-eighties, Smith became Rastafarian and began using the name Wadada. In 1993, he began teaching at Cal Arts, a position he currently holds. In addition to trumpet and flugelhorn, Smith plays several world music instruments, including the koto, kalimba, and atenteben (Ghanaian bamboo flute); he has also taught courses in instrument making. His compositions often use a graphic notation system he calls “Ankhrasmation.”

In 1998, Smith and guitarist Henry Kaiser released Yo, Miles! a tribute to Miles Davis’s under-appreciated 1970s electric period. On this album Smith, Kaiser and a large cast of musicians recorded cover versions and original compositions inspired by Miles’s electric music. The follow-ups Sky Garden (released by Cuneiform in 2004) and Upriver (released in 2005) were recorded with a different cast of musicians. Both line-ups featured Michael Manring on bass.

Smith’s Golden Quartet (with whom he’s released two albums) features Jack DeJohnette on drums, Anthony Davis on keyboards, and Malachi Favors on bass. Smith has recently recorded a few albums for Tzadik and Pi Recordings record labels.


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