Ishmael Leo Smith was born in Leland, Mississippi in 1941. His musical life commenced in high school, where he played in concert and marching bands. He played French horn, drums, and mellophone before moving on to trumpet. His formal musical education is credited to his stepfather Alex Wallace, the U.S. Military Band program (1963), and the Sherwood School of Music (1967 to 1969). He began playing in R&B combos in the early '60s and in Army bands before becoming an early member of Chicago's AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).
He began research and design toward discovery of the abstract musical language Ankhrasmation in 1965. The first recorded appearance of that system appeared on "The Bell" for Anthony Braxton's debut album 3 Compositions of New Jazz. In 1972, Smith founded the Kabell label to release his recordings. His first solo album, Creative Music: 1 (Six Solo Improvisations) appeared on the label in 1972.
He also co-founded the avant-improvisational group Creative Construction Company with violinist Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, which toured Europe during the late '60s. They recorded Silence, a 1974 trio album for Freedom Records, and a self-titled offering in 1975, recorded while Smith was studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. The recording supervisor for the date was Ornette Coleman.
In 1973, Kiom Press published Notes (8 Pieces) Source a New World Music: Creative Music, the initial volume of Smith's essays on music. During his Wesleyan studies, Smith also taught at the University of New Haven. While there, he formed the New Dalta Ahkri, an under-documented band whose revolving membership included Henry Threadgill, Davis, and Oliver Lake. They recorded two albums for Kabell, 1975's Reflectativity and 1977's Song of Humanity (Kanta Pri Homoro). He also recorded in the Creative Improvisation Ensemble with Marion Brown in 1975 (and played on the seminal Geechee Recollections). After leaving Wesleyan, Smith played with Braxton in 1976, and recorded with Derek Bailey's Company. He released Spirit Catcher under his own name on Nessa Records in 1979. That same year he signed a non-exclusive deal with Manfred Eicher's ECM label, which released the widely acclaimed Divine Love.
During the 1980s, Smith worked extensively in Europe, playing and recording with bassist Peter Kowald and percussionist Günter Sommer. Together, they released Touch the Earth (1980) and If You Want the Kernels, You Have to Break the Shells (1982) for Germany's FMP label. Smith had taken up playing the mbira (an African thumb piano) and added it to his instrumental arsenal with some regularity from that point forward. With Sommer and Kowald, he also recorded Human Rights in 1986, co-released by Kabell/Gramm. About this time, he became a Rastafarian and changed his name to Wadada Leo Smith. In 1987, he began teaching at Bard College.
In 1989, Smith cut Procession of the Great Ancestry under his own name on Chief Records, and Interludes of Breath and Substance with composer and pianist Matthew Goodheart. In 1992, Smith and Japanese percussionist Yoshisaburo Toyozumi released Cosmos Has Spirit on Scissors Records. The following year he left Bard to begin teaching at Cal Arts' Herb Alpert School of Music. He issued his second ECM date, the acclaimed, completely solo Kulture Jazz, on which he played a variety of instruments. In 1995, his "Odwira" for 12 multi-ensembles (featuring 52 musicians) was performed at Cal Arts. He began his long and fruitful association with John Zorn's Tzadik imprint in 1996 with the release of Tao-Njia; his Noh composition work "Heart's Reflections" was first performed by a large group at Merkin Concert Hall the same year.
Smith began recording prolifically for a number of labels, all the while teaching and touring and writing scores for his three prevalent ensembles -- Golden Quartet, Silver Orchestra, and Organic -- as well as performing solo work. In 1997 he issued the little-known trio date Prataksis with Vinny Golia and Bertram Turetzky on Ninewinds, and in 1998 he began his association with guitarist Henry Kaiser in an ad hoc band called Yo Miles!, an electric avant jazz-funk ensemble devoted to the work and inspirational example of Miles Davis' electric period. They released their self-titled debut that year. Also in 1998, Condor, Autumn Wind was issued in collaboration with his wife, poet Harumi Makino Smith. In 1999, Light Upon Light was released by Tzadik, and his first album of contemporary classical music, Southwest Chamber Music, arrived on the Cambria label.
At the turn of the century, Smith issued two albums for Tzadik: Reflectativity, with Anthony Davis and Malachi Favors Mogoustous, and the debut offering from the Golden Quartet with drummer Jack DeJohnette added to the lineup. During this decade, various classical and new music ensembles began to perform Smith's work, including the Kronos Quartet, the California EAR Unit, the New York New Music Ensemble, the AACM Orchestra, and ne(x)tworks. He reunited with Braxton for two albums on Pi Recordings: Organic Resonance and Saturn, Conjunct the Grand Canyon in a Sweet Embrace in 2003 and 2004; the latter year was especially productive. Sky Garden, the second offering from Yo Miles! appeared, as did Lake Biwa from Tzadik. He participated in electronica unit Spring Heel Jack's jazz experiment The Sweetness of the Water for Thirsty Ear, and in John Zorn's month-long 50th birthday concert series/celebration with the saxophonist and drummer Susie Ibarra. Tzadik issued a gorgeous, lushly illustrated retrospective box set entitled The Kabell Years, 1971-1979, documenting the output from Smith's label.
Smith issued three recordings in 2005. First was Snakish on Leo Records, with Walter and Katya Quintus, Miroslav Tadic, and Mark Nauseef; this was followed by the second Yo Miles! recording, Upriver -- cut during the same sessions as the previous year's Sky Garden) -- and the collaborative album Dreams Secrets, which paired a Smith/Kaiser unit called N'Da Kulture with African vocalist Thomas Mapfumo the Blacks Unlimited. In 2006, Smith oversaw the first performance of his work "Tabligh" for double ensemble performed by the Golden Quartet Classical Persian Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall. He also collaborated with Adam Rudolph on the album Compassion (co-released by Kabell and Meta). "Tabligh" was performed again at the Aklbank Music Festival by the Golden Quartet and Suleyman Erguner's classical Turkish ensemble. In 2008, it finally appeared on Cuneiform in 2008. The Golden Quartet's lineup included pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. A documentary film about the band was released that year entitled Freedom Now, directed by Jacques Goldstein, and made available on DVD.
Smith saw reissues of various recordings for Nessa and ECM in 2008 and 2009, and released two important new recordings. The first was the widely acclaimed Spiritual Dimensions for Cuneiform in 2009. A double disc, it featured Smith in both quintet and nonet settings amid a stellar cast of players including members of the Golden Quartet and guitarists Brandon Ross and Nels Cline. The second album was a duet recording with DeJohnette entitled America on Tzadik. It included the composition "The Blue Mountain Sun Drummer (For Ed Blackwell)" that inspired a 2010 album of the same name on Kabell. This latter disc offered a live performance of Blackwell and the trumpeter from October 1986 at Brandeis University.
Smith began the second decade of the new century with the double-disc Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform) by his Organic band. The album does not feature his composition of the same name from 1995, but instead includes all-new material performed by a large group whose playing ranges from electric and avant to funky jazz and systematically improvised encounters. Smith created a new trio called Mbira in 2011, featuring drummer Pheeroan akLaff and Min Xiao-Fen on pipa and voice (Smith plays trumpet and flügelhorn -- there is no mbira on the album). Their debut recording, Dark Lady of the Sonnets, appeared in early 2012. Later that year, Smith also released his four-disc Civil Rights opus, the oratorio Ten Freedom Summers on Cuneiform, and a duet recording with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo entitled Ancestors. In the summer of 2013, in addition to touring Ten Freedom Summers at jazz festivals across the U.S. and Europe (it also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination), he released Occupy the World, a collaborative recording with bassist John Lindberg and the big band Tumo. In 2013, Smith recorded a collaborative effort with George Lewis on trombone and John Zorn on sax; titled Sonic Rivers, the album was released by Tzadik in mid-2014, and featured original visual artwork from Smith. He followed this with another major new compositional work on Tum entitled Great Lakes Suites in mid-September, leading a quartet that included Lindberg, Jack DeJohnette, and Henry Threadgill. Smith also played trumpet in an improvisational quartet with keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Joe Morris, and drummer Balazs Pandi. Their debut offering, Red Hill, was issued on Rare Noise later that month.
In 2015, in the midst of concerts for Ten Freedom Summers and Great Lakes Suites, Smith recorded Celestial Weather, a duo album with Lindberg comprising three suites on Tum. In March 2016, Smith made his first appearance on ECM since 1993 in a duo collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer on A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. In May, he received a Doris Duke Artist Award. His Ankhrasmation scores were exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and lauded with a 2016 Mohn Award. Nessuno, a collaborative release with Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, and John Tilbury was issued by ReR in July. August marked the centennial anniversary of the Organic Act that created the National Parks Service in the United States. Smith composed another long-form work in celebration. Entitled America's National Parks, the work was performed by his Golden Quintet featuring the bandleader in the company of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, Pheeroan akLaff, and cellist Ashley Walters; the massive work was recorded in a single day. Cuneiform issued America's National Parks in its 90-plus-minute entirety in October 2016.
In October 2017, Smith issued two albums with Tum that were released the same day: Solo Reflections and Meditations on Monk. It included readings of four Thelonious Monk compositions and four original works inspired by the legendary pianist/composer. The electric Najwa also appeared; its band included bassist Bill Laswell, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, percussionist Adam Rudolph, and electric guitarists Kaiser, Brandon Ross, and Lamar Smith. The following year saw Smith issue a pair of duo recordings for Tum: Celestial Weather a duo outing with longtime bassist Lindberg, and Ancestors with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. Smith also returned to ECM along with Bill Frisell as Andrew Cyrille's sideman on Lebroba.
In early 2019, Smith released Rosa Parks: Pure Love, An Oratorio of Seven Songs on Tum. In April, he debuted it The Kitchen in New York City with four ensembles including Diamond Voices, the strings-only RedKoral Quartet, the Blue Trumpet Quartet, and the Janus Duo. The acclaimed performance also included video and butoh dance. In 2020, Smith and electronic composer/multi-instrumentalist Barry Schrader released the long-form digital single Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing: Cycle of Destruction. In April 2021, Smith, drummer Mike Reed, and Jamaican born multi-instrumentalist Douglas R. Ewart issued the completely improvised Sun Beans of Shimmering Light. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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