Perfect Sound Forever


Panels for the Walls of Heaven: Notes on five Smith songs
by Mike Wood
(February 2012)

"I wanted to make more melody, to fit the room better. I kept using the floor and the open space. Outside, sound dissipates so fast, and if you don't channel it, it'll be all over the place. Environment. To play your best, you have to consider where you are."--Wadada Leo Smith Like many a Shaman, Wadada Leo Smith explores the eternal by mining the rich dirt beneath his feet and the ingestion of air both foul and sweet. He is a product both of the blues and of more long-standing spiritual traditions like Sufism and Buddhism. The direct experience he seeks in his improvisational-based music harkens to the uses of music throughout Africa, Asia and the American South: music as holy, an expression of emotion that can only be expressed once and then never repeated. His explorations into the possibilities and uses of sound have varied from be-bop to free jazz to funk, from bands large and small, to leading several bands at once, each with a different aim. Gently, almost invisibly, he has made some of the most emotional and free music of the last half-century.

Given the breadth of his inspiration and output, I chose for this piece to shine a light on five songs from his career, four from recent releases and one from his 1986 debut. My choices were partially random, but they also express a theme or tone that I find among his most fascinating and satisfying: the combination of freedom and discipline, of the joy of the artist who is also mindful of the suffering around him. Smith's compassion, as much as his skill as a horn player, distinguishes his still-expanding catalog. Also, the songs were mostly chosen from the last decade because he seems to have deepened or played with many of the themes--funk, blues, bop, Miles, the ballad--that he has always used as the grounds for expression.

What makes Smith compelling is his search for the spiritual core in whatever he is playing or composing--solo, with various ensembles and within improvisational free jazz, more or less straight bop or through music that draws from world or folk music, Smith is always riveting in his simple but rich tone, with his reverent but muscular approach.

His biography, the physical one, can be found all over the web and on his website. Here we begin in the late 60's, with Rhythm Units and Ahkreanvention. He has said that "the rhythm unit concept is one that accepts a single sound or rhythm, a series of rhythm - sound, or a grouping of more than one series of sound rhythm as a complete piece of music and thus need not be so- called developed further to be appreciated as a whole fresh realized work or piece, IMPROVISATION. The correct understanding of each unit is: the value given to an audible unit is followed by the relative equivalence of silence."

Through these units and silence, other players "must follow Smith's example at first," but then, according to Smith, "each performer must develop their own realization since my example is only my RU; they must create their own RU." Thus these Units are expressed "creatively, with one's heart and head."

The result is personal revelation, communal interplay, and spontaneous answers to what Smith seeks in his quest to find out "how sound resonates in space" (Smith, 1978)

As for Ahkreanvention, Smith has said that he wanted "to create and invent musical ideas simultaneously, utilizing the fundamental laws of improvisation and composition, Within this system, all of the elements of the scored music are controlled through symbols designating duration, improvisation, and moving sounds of different velocities. These symbols are depicted on two types of staffs sound staffs divided into low, medium and high, and sound staffs of adjustable sound partials. Since this system was designed, all of the music I have worked on has dealt with the philosophical and technical attitude upon which it is based." What this has meant visually has been scores that are not so much musical notation as vibrational abstracts, the shapes and colors of the music giving the band or individuals with whom he plays a clue as to the framework for the piece. It is not a stretch, when hearing his music, to buy into his idea that the blues is similarly free and open to endless avenues. For Smith, the blues us "an interchange between the one and the five tonic and dominant tones of the Western tempered scale], it's not a harmonic progression and it never was, and that's the freest phenomenon you could find. It's just tone, that's the only thing about it -- and I think that's a beautiful thing that it's tone, because that is generating, or connecting its unified point" (Smith, 1978)

The Songs

1 "Humanismo Justa Tutmonda Muziko/ Human Rights World Music" (Human Rights, 1986)

This 30 minute track begins with a poem calling for equality and human rights for all; a dizzying blend of free jazz, abstract minimalism that employs ethnic folk instruments like the koto and mbira, noir-ish percussion abstractions that presage some of Zorn's outing, culminating in a brilliant and fluid mix of Smith's waling horn, African-style rhythms and Asian melodies.

In the first of his "notes (8 pieces)" from 1973, Smith says that "the idea is that each improviser creates as an element of the whole, only responding to that which he is creating within himself instead of responding to the total creative energy of the different units. This attitude frees the sound-rhythm elements in an improvisation from being realized through dependent re-action. This is the fundamental principle underlining my music, in that it extends into all the source-areas of music-making, i.e. each single rhythm-sound, or a series of sound-rhythm is a complete improvisation. In other words, each element is autonomous in its relationship in the improvisation. Therefore, there is no intent towards time as a period of development."

In this track, you can hear a young Smith build off of the blues and invite his band to build off the words of his poem as well as the notes from his horn.

Given that Smith has used the blues, free jazz, blizzards of notes and single, echoing notes to illustrate the possibilities of Rhythm Units, he opens the door for each of his songs to be an endless doorway into interpretations that take in all genres and all experiences of his and of those musicians with him at the time. That is why I chose these five songs: they represent all of his songs, and any could have been chosen to point to his musical entryways.

2 "Piru" (The Year of the Elephant, 2002)

At 10 minutes, this is a rich, melancholy piano and horn ballad, a subtle but emotionally deep communication, with gentle underpinning from Malachi Favors Magoustous' bass and sympathetic rolls and fills by a very understated Jack Dejohnette on drums. The understated but deeply felt tones reflect his notes for another of the 8 notes--the wonder and gorgeousness of nature:

i've heard the sounds of the crickets, the birds, the whirling about and clinging of the wind, the floating waves ' and clashing of water against rocks, the love of thunder and beauty that prevails during and after the lightening - the - toiling of souls throughout the world in suffering - the moments of realization, of oneness, of realness in all of these make and contribute to the wholeness of my music - the sound- rhythm beyond - beyond - is what i'm after through this precious and glorious art of the black man - this improvisational music that i see, that i feel, that bursts all about us in this world, that's conveyed to us from the many different other worlds and that's held intact through our minds from the universe - these are life sources that bring forth love through the creative ability of all is what makes my life complete with all its suffering and all of its pleasures and all that makes life life (Smith, 1973)

3. "Umar at the Dome of the Rock, Parts 1 & 2" (Spiritual Dimensions, 2009)

Almost fifteen minutes from Smith's Golden Quintet (the second disc of Spiritual Dimensions features the debut of his other band at the time, Organic). Here, aside from the piano intro and frantic full band coda, the core of this live song is a minimal funk groove, over which bassist John Lindberg and drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye.

From the note (the equality of all instruments and a few notes on a sound recording, creative music-1 --- and other thoughts), Smith reflects:

if you listen to an orchestra, ensemble, or a solo, listen seriously to that only. do not listen with some strange outer third ear for something that's not there. in other words, if a solo improvisation is taking place, do not suppose in your mind that you are hearing a solo and plus. that is absolutely an unintelligent approach to music. so i simply say: hear what you are hearing when you are hearing and you will never have illusions of what it is that you are hearing (Smith, 1973).

4 "Uprising" (The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer, 2009)

Recorded live on October 23, 1986 at Brandeis University, Radio "The Joint" WBRS 100.1 FM, this is a short tight song from within whose confines Smith explores single notes and various runs that lock in easily on tones bright and coy. Like the blank space surrounding his visual conceptions of his compositions, the silence draws attention to those notes, and to their endless possible colors.

In his Artist Statement, Smith talks of music in terms of revelation, an aim that is present in his uses of single notes and silence as well as the challenges posed by the musicians with whom he shares his vision:

Through musical reflections I realized that music had a philosophical, theoretical and practical usage in the construction of art objects; and that the creative music language consists of compositional forms (known musical elements) and improvisational forms (unknown musical elements). The composition and improvisation are constructed through musical activities and that special inspired musical moment that the artist/composer/performer wishes to reveal. For fifty years my research and artistic development has been in creating a musical notational language designed with compatible systems to illustrate my artistic expression.. (Smith, 1973)

5. "The Well: From Bitter to Fresh Sweet Water, Parts I& II"; (Heart's Reflections, 2010)

The first part owes a lot to mid-'70's Miles, especially to the fat funk bass and sharp seemingly random horn notes and runs; part two is mostly a warm ballad that abruptly changes to a brooding occasionally harsh horn solo, one that slowly recognizes some swirling percussion and storm-like effects in back in the mix. Smith plays both trumpet and electric trumpet, and there are no less than four guitarists and three bassists play on this record, as much a sign of his generosity to other musicians as to his desire to be able to build his own work off the ways in which others interpret it for themselves in a band setting.

Has his generous approach to his music, its constant movement, prevented him from a wider audience? It seems to me that spreading his inspiration and spirit as widely as possible, for both musician and student to find and absorb, allows him to find his audiences of today and tomorrow, no matter the size. Smith explains it this way:
I'm attracted to music and to being able to create ideas to use to influence physical. spiritual, and psychic changes, as well as materialistic changes in the lives of those I know and those I may never see. I want to be able to channel music back towards the tradition of the musician (which is what John Coltrane. Albert Ayler, the AACM, and others were about) as somebody who didn't just play an instrument and send out notes in a relationship called art.
Simultaneously and perpetually both teacher and student, often within the same song, Smith currently works in and leads three groups: Golden Quartet, Silver Orchestra, and Organic. His music has been performed all over the world by the likes of: AACM-Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, Da Capo Chamber Player, New Century Players, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Contemporary Chamber Players, among many others. As a composer and performer, Wadada Leo Smith has quietly left us a body of work that is unselfconsciously spiritual, music that believes in magic and compassion, but music that also believes in the fearlessness required to truly leave something behind for the next generations (Ness, 1976).

In the context of his music, fame or success is beside the point: making the Spirit visible is the goal. Once more in his own words:

" our civilization is given in trust to us from each generation that that came before. So teachings are accumulative. Eventually those people that looked like they were actually failures because they had achieved very little in terms of numbers in their lifetimes, in the long run they come to look like they amount to a lot. Say Henry David Thoreau. Walden Pond may not look like much, but his writings inspires people all over the world, continuously" (Mandel, 2003).


Burk, Greg. Wadada Leo Smith interview (L.A. Weekly, 2000)

Dansby, Andrew. "Passionate About Jazz" (Houston Chronicle, 2006)

Horton, Lyn. "Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force"

Mandel, Howard. "Yo, Wadada! Leo Smith's Long Pilgrimage" (, 2003)

Medwin, Marc. "Wadada Leo Smith"

Ness, Bob. "Profile: Leo Smith" (Downbeat Magazine, 1976).

Woodard, Josef. "Onward & Upward" (Jazz Times, 2008)

Sumera, Matthew. "Wadada Leo Smith: The OFN Interview" (, 2005).

Smith, Wadada Leo. "notes (8 pieces)" (1973)

Smith, Wadada Leo. "The Systems of Rhythm: Rhythm - Units and Ahkreanvention" (1978)

Smith, Wadada Leo. "Artist's Statement" (1979)

All Smith writings are available on his official website

Also well worth the investment are his several duets with drummers, among them: Compassion (2006, with Ed Blackwell); Wisdom in Time (2007, with Gunter Baby Sommer), and America (2009, with Jack DeJohnette)

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER