Wadada Leo Smith, Luis Perdomo
January 1, 1970Back to the basic routine this week: Friday's "Jazz Notes" profile was of avant-garde trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith, and the pick for Thursday's Calendar section was pianist Luis Perdomo.
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Creating music that's never the same twice
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | April 29, 2005
The last time the avant-garde trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith performed in Boston was 17 years ago, when he played a 1988 duet set with the late, great drummer Ed Blackwell. So maybe it's fitting that his return visit tomorrow night, for a Boston Creative Music Alliance concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art, will involve only Smith and percussion as well.
This time around, though, the percussion will come from the laptop computer of Ikue Mori, best known for her work with cutting-edge types such as Arto Lindsay and John Zorn. And Smith, too, will be accessing electronic effects via his horn.
Opportunities to hear what they sound like together are rare. Smith and Mori have played a handful of concerts in New York, and one more apiece in Portugal and Bosnia. And Mori appears on two duet tracks on Smith's CD "Luminous Axis," which came out in 2002 on Zorn's Tzadik label.
"It does have an electronic feel to it," says Smith, 63, by phone from his California home. "But I would say it's much warmer than most electronic music. And it's creative, meaning that when we step on the stage we don't have a note in mind, we don't have a rhythm in mind. All we have in mind is that we're going to take this score, or we're going make a collaborative improvisation, and we go from there."
All of this is done without rehearsal. "If they know the language," Smith says, improvising musicians "are able to engage with each other in a very intriguing way and come up with something that's quite brilliant. And, in fact, quite heroic, to tell you the truth."
The language to which Smith refers is Ankhrasmation, the name he has given to the distinctive method of music notation he has been developing since his days in Chicago in the late '60s and early '70s with Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and other forward-looking cohorts in the legendary AACM, or Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
The word Ankhrasmation, explains Smith, was derived by splicing together the ancient Egyptian word for "vital life force" ("Ankh"), the Amharic word for "head" or "father" ("Ras"), and a universal word for mother: "Ma." ("Wadada," in case you're wondering, is the Amharic word for "love.")
In practice, Ankhrasmation uses symbols to sketch out a roadmap for improvisation. A composition including the symbol "orange," for example, would require Smith and Mori to have thought deeply about how they could musically reference all aspects of "orange" — not just the color, but the fruit and its myriad characteristics as well. Then they take those reference points and improvise on them. No two times through a Smith composition are the same.
"Once you've made a work of art out of it," says Smith, "you can't repeat it. That's the kind of excitement that this kind of language houses, and for me, that's very important, because it keeps you fresh."
Mori, via e-mail, agrees.
"Following the Ankhrasmation method is like following the map of the cosmic journey with Wadada or something," she explains. "It's not like free improvisation with others, because of the events you have to create [to] express the color and shape in a certain time. But ultimately the form of the music we create is very intuitive, and anything could happen during the journey. I preprogram and prepare some sounds and patterns with my computer and manipulate and recombine them live."
Smith says Mori has approached Ankhrasmation and the research it entails more thoroughly than anyone else he has worked with. "This woman is the best in the world," he enthuses. "And creatively she matches anything that I can do or anybody else can do."
That's high praise coming from Smith, whose main working bands of late have been the two incarnations of his Golden Quartet, the first of them an all-star ensemble including Anthony Davis on piano, Malachi Favors on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. After the death of Favors last year, Smith revamped the quartet to include Vijay Iyer on piano, John Lindberg on bass, and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums.
Smith claims to find the new contingent even more exciting than its predecessor, mostly because it adds electronics to the earlier group's all-acoustic mix.
"Let's say the other quartet was like John the Baptist," says Smith, laughing. "This quartet is like Jesus Christ. I mean, if I can use a metaphor like that."
Beyond that, Smith recorded last year's CD "Lake Biwa" with his Silver Orchestra — Smith's trumpet, Zorn's saxophone, tuba, two basses, three drummers, and a rotating cast of four pianists — and he has a new trio in the works, called Blue Carbon, with Jackson again on drums and Braxton's son Tyondai on electronically processed guitar and voice.
This is all squeezed around Smith's professorial duties at California Institute of the Arts, where he has taught for 11 years — the first five as the Dizzy Gillespie chair in jazz studies and since then in a program of his own design in African-American improvisational music.
All this may seem far removed from Smith's early days growing up in Mississippi and hitting the road as a teenager with blues great Little Milton. But don't be so sure. Just last spring he taught a seminar on the blues, delving deeply into the work of Charlie Patton, Son House, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
"I listen to the blues all the time," Smith says. "I think that the blues is the most fundamental notion about freedom. And it also has the deepest commitment toward improvisation."
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Scullers, DoubleTree Hotels Guest Suites, 400 Soldiers Road, Boston. 617-562-4111. 8 & 10 p.m. $16, $54 with dinner.
Pianist Luis Perdomo named his debut CD "Focus Point" because, he told an interviewer when the disc was released in September, "a lot of things in my life are starting to come into focus." Since leaving his native Venezuela to study at the Manhattan School of Music a decade earlier, Perdomo has gone on to study privately with Sir Roland Hanna while pursuing a master's degree at Queens College. He's also logged extensive sideman work with artists ranging from iconic figures such as Ray Barretto and Alice Coltrane to fellow rising stars like Miguel Zenón and Ravi Coltrane. The latter two reciprocated with guest appearances on "Focus Point," a disc that shows off Perdomo's impressive compositional chops as much as his musicianship. Perdomo, 34, continues performing in groups led by Barretto, Zenón, and Ravi Coltrane, among others, but at Scullers tonight he'll be leading bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Eric McPherson on a trio date.
Sat 4-30 Wadada Leo Smith and Ikue Mori Avant-garde trumpeter-composer Smith joins forces with laptop artist Mori for the Boston Creative Music Alliance season finale, presented in conjunction with the 2005 CyberArts Festival. Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston St., Boston. Tickets available in advance from Twisted Village, 12 Eliot St., Cambridge, 617-354-6898, or at door the night of the concert. 617-628-4342. $10, $8 students.