leo smith | notes (8 pieces) source a new world music: creative music


(First Printing: June 1973, 39 pages; Published and Written By Leo Smith)

I originally wrote to Leo Smith for a review copy of his record Creative Music – 1. He replied that he would send the record for my enjoyment, but he did not wish it reviewed for reasons that could be found in his book. He asked that I review his book.

If no one else reads this book, it should be read by all those who style themselves “critics” or by anyone who through whatever media is making their opinions on “creative music” (Leo Smith’s term for “jazz”) publicly known.

Smith rightly points out the most important way that critics have hurt the music: namely, by bringing to it a set of assumptions foreign to its nature (mostly related to composition) and by limiting the music to those assumptions, thereby pulling it away from its own creative foundations (improvisation). “Not only that,” he adds, “the critics placed a ceiling of definition on the music that could only force it to remain in the state they found it, and thus stagnate.” (This latter criticism should serve as fair warning to so-called “new” critics.)

He goes on to pose the question of whether creative music can even be criticized at all; and he replies, “no, creative music cannot be criticized. It not does not require that form of journalism.” On the one hand, he notes that – along with the listener – there are any number of environmental factors (the temperature, elements of air, contours and shape of the room, etc.) that effect the improviser in the act of creation. Secondly, he writes that if a creative level of communication is reached between musician and listener, then that is enough. “It can go no further than you-inside-you. It is not a music that allows one to use it and still refer to it. If someone uses the music – for example, tries to write about how it has ‘succeeded’ or ‘failed’ or how it was ‘not quite there’ and how the audience ‘reacted’ to it – they fail (lose) in just that slight moment to bring outside something that is inside (for the inside: soul).”


I might have added another point to this line of reasoning (Smith himself hints at this): namely, that inherent in the very nature of improvised music is a consistent commitment to change, to find newer and deeper communicative levels. Because of this, the music always exists only for its own moment of creation, for no other; even though it does “structure” time – draws on the past, moves toward the future (”includes the entire spectrum of space and cycle of time” – Smith). But really, it exists only for now. (”When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone – in the air. You can never capture it again.” – Eric Dolphy)

But there are other questions that should be posed. For example, is there a fine line between criticism as such and documentation? Is it important to document the fact that, say, Cecil Taylor played at such and such a place at such and such a time, and that the music – to one person’s ears – sounded like this? Perhaps if one has access to Cecil’s music periodically, it does not really matter. But does it matter that someone who will not have the opportunity to actually hear Cecil play (which must include most people) know of this event? Is it important to all of us now to know what we can know, through writings, of Buddy Bolden’s music, of which there are no known extant recordings? Or even if there were recordings of Bolden, would it be interesting and informative now to have other accounts of specific dates and places where he and his group played?

On another level, the existence of improvised music on record has created a certain ambivalence as regards its own intent and dimensions. Both in an aesthetic sense and in an economic sense, the music has become “objectified.” In an aesthetic sense, it no longer exists only for the moment; the music now exists in all of time (similar to written music?), able to be compared (therefore criticized?) with other recorded music by a particular artist and with that of other artists.

In an economic sense, the music has entered the market place. It is only available to those who agree to exchange money for it. In this situation where the listener is also a consumer who, in order to hear the music, must make a prior economic commitment, it almost seems to demand some kind of aesthetic critique, at least in terms of choice. Ideally, this shouldn’t be so, but until the music is universally available to all who wish to hear it (economic considerations aside), this seems irreversible.

wadadaleosmithbypaulrogers2.jpgFurther, Leo Smith makes other points regarding consideration of the music. One of the most important is his insistence that the music be dealt with on all its levels at once – no more separation in terms of the “front line” or the “rhythm section” or “soloists.” For example: “In the evaluation of (bop), the opinion has been that the solo-line is the creation of a ‘solo-ist’ and that the other improvisers are mere accompanists…  The solo-line, in fact, is created by all improvisers contributing to it (any combination of reeds, brass, [Photo: Paul Rogers] bass, drums, and piano): all the component parts become the solo-line. A ‘solo’ alone can only be created by one improviser.”

Following from this, he stresses the underlying rhythmic nature of creative music, pointing out that simply because there are no drums present does not mean that a piece of music is not black music. He refers to the Louis Armstrong-Earl Hines recordings – without drums – in 1925-26.

Time has ripened, he says, for a new creative improviser who in most cases will be multi-instrumentalist (able to approach several instruments as one complete instrument) and “who is able to perform creative music in all its aspects (solo, ensemble, and orchestra) without any prepared planning or setting up of conditions (as far as the improvisation is concerned).”

The final portion of Notes deals with specific descriptions of the music on Leo Smith’s record, Creative Music – 1.

Notes is recommended to those listeners interested in delving deeper into the fundamental aspects of creative music. And, again, it is especially referred to all “critics.”

Henry Kuntz, 1974


Leo Smith web page

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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