Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force
The blues have molded the way in which Smith found his music. In Jacques Goldstein's 2005 film Eclipse, which features clips of Smith talking about aspects of music that help to define what he does, the trumpeter speaks generally about the blues: "The blues is like a state of mind, you know. It's at once sad and it is also at once the most joyous and optimistic feeling, simultaneously, so that a person can slide on either of those boundaries or emotions and still be correct and not lose their way by going from one area to the next, you see. It is the music that has great confidence in itself, meaning that when you truly play that sound from your heart, it's everything that you think about and will be at that momentwas it dead or aliveit's the ultimate how you feel, and that's the blues; that makes the blues for me."
The way in which Smith talks about the Delta Blues culture in which he was raised in Mississippi points to how his own music grew. In answer to the question, what is Delta Blues, he responds: "Delta Blues is country blues. It is a very personal music that people made sitting on the porch after working in the fields. Then that music changed from more personal to a communal kind. Artists like Robert Johnson are perfect models. The music had personal information in it, then he'd make songs that have narrative stories to them which he would portray like an actor would portray, but he would do it as a song." The instrument of Delta Blues was the guitar: "Most singers would play by themselves, [with] just the guitar. But later they formed bands. They played Delta blues and used harmonic sound in the music sometimes, but used violins, two guitars, a bassist and drummer." Smith cites Mississippi Delta bluesman Edward James "Son" House (1902-1988) as an example of a player who formed a group, whose instrumentation, Smith recalls, included "three guitars, violins and sometimes bass and drums."
Also a Mississippi native, John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) directly reflected the blues of the Deep South. Hooker had "a strong effect on how I think about music," proclaims Smith, particularly in relation to phrasing. "Phrasing is the rhythmic context of the notes; the connection of musical ideas. Phrasing shows style and feeling and sincerity." Smith describes sincerity in this way: "You can tell a story in many different ways, but personalizing it gives it shape and character. Anybody can play notes but what makes them more important is how you connect them together. That connection together is the most important vehicle to express that musical idea. There's not a lot to say about phrasing except this: it has that dynamic responsibility of actually communicating what you want to say. It makes what you want to say able to penetrate one's sensibility, because phrasing is a kind of psychological usage of notes and sound and rhythm and silence and space. If phrasing is not unique and peculiar to that player, then it just becomes some set of notes."
Phrasing and its emotional value are interlocked. The question of emotion is not something which Smith shirks. "The emotional partbelieve it or noteverything I play comes directly out of what I feel like or directly out of what I know. When I am able to balance those two, then [my playing] reaches the emotional level I want it to reach." Emotion becomes a product of Smith merging with the listener. "You set up this kind of invisible wave that ties you into your audience. The connection is non- verbal and has all to do with a special tuning that takes place between the audience and the observer. Said in another way: when an artist makes a communication through an artistic expression [to an observer, it is as if] those two people were in a conversation and all of a sudden both of them realize exactly the content of their conversation. Said in another way: You know when you are talking to somebody and you are going back and forth, you can feel the connection of the communication because you know the idea they want to present and you have the courage to allow the idea to unfold and as it unfolds in you, coming out of the other person, you'll get that same sensation that the other person gets [who is] actually relating the idea. So the success of the idea becomes two-fold; it becomes part of the presenter and the receiver."
The powerful convergence of minds, no matter what the vehicle of communication is between artist and the recipient of the communication, becomes for Smith a means to unify spirits, to rekindle energy and life's vital force. Communication is a dynamic on all levels of existence. Smith is in touch with all those levels.
Smith seriously turned to playing the trumpet when he was thirteen. Today, at the age of sixty-eight, he can give his instrument symbolic meaning. "The trumpet is like a flower; the seed is the air or breath that is projected through it. So a flower unfolds vertically and horizontally or open-like. So I consider the trumpet to be exactly the same symbol as a flower. And when the sound evolves in the mind, then it's pushed out by the air and the diaphragm, through the throat and through this little hole that's drilled into the mouthpiece, it begins from that point on to unfold like a flower, whether rotating horizontally and moving out or whether rotating vertically and horizontally and moving out.
"When it's first outside of the trumpet, it's just like a flower. It actually sends out this aroma or this sound in music and space and silence in all directions once it proceeds from the bell of the trumpet. The horizontal motion is moving outwards towards the opening of the trumpet to evolve on the whole plane of the earth and this other part of it is rotating on itself like an axle."
Smith's view allows him to approach his instrument with a delicacy that is inherent in the structure of natural entities. The trumpet is a source for his musical connection with the world; it is his means of communicating with the world in his own language as well.