Wadada Leo Smith Celebrates National Parks With Double Album


Wadada Leo Smith will release America’s National Parks on Cuneiform Records on Oct. 14.

(Photo: Courtesy the Artist)

August 2016 marks the centennial anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service. Numerous celebrations honoring the national parks will take place throughout the month, and now, jazz fans have reason to celebrate, too. Trumpet visionary Wadada Leo Smith will release America’s National Parks, a double-CD tribute to America’s scenic landscapes, on Cuneiform Records on Oct. 14.

Smith, who topped the Composer category of the 2013 DownBeat Critics Poll, is lauded by jazz critics for his epic and insightful compositions, which often explore single subjects in great detail. His prior release on Cuneiform was Ten Freedom Summers, a four-disc set celebrating the American Civil Rights Movement, for which he was named one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

America’s National Parks continues in the conceptual and political vein of Ten Freedom Summers, reaffirming Smith’s dedication to commemorating significant moments and ideas in American history.

“The notion of creating these national parks has been celebrated as the earliest idea of collecting common ground for the ordinary base of a society,” Smith said. “It’s a collective notion about common property, inheritance, longevity, transformation, and sustaining beauty down the line, where any American in history coming forward can see and have ownership of this common property.”

Featuring six original compositions, the album takes a broad conceptual gaze at its subject matter. Movements in the suite celebrate individual national parks—including Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon—as well as noteworthy musical thinkers like musicologist and educator Eileen Jackson Southern, whom Smith calls “a literary national park.”

Joining the trumpeter on the album are members of his newly expanded Golden Quintet, which includes Anthony Davis on piano, Ashley Walters on cello, John Lindberg on bass and Pheeroan akLaff on drums. The album also contains artwork and photography by video artist Jesse Gilbert.

Smith, who turns 75 on Dec. 18, said a primary catalyst for the project was watching director Ken Burns’ six-part documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which premiered in 2009.

“The idea that Ken Burns explored in that documentary was that the grandeur of nature was like a religion or a cathedral,” Smith said. “I reject that image because the natural phenomenon in creation, just like man and stars and light and water, is all one thing, just a diffusion of energy. My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.”

Though Smith engaged in fastidious research to compose his suite, the trumpeter has yet to visit many of the parks he paid homage to in the pieces.

“You don’t really need to visit a park to write about a park,” Smith said. “Debussy wrote La Mer, which is about the sea, and he wasn’t a seafaring person. I would defend his right to do that, and I would contend that La Mer is a masterpiece that clearly reflects his psychological connection with the idea of the sea.”

Earlier this year, Smith, a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, was the recipient of a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award and an honorary doctorate from CalArts.

In March, ECM released A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, an acclaimed duo album that Smith recorded with pianist Vijay Iyer. To read an Editors’ Pick review of that album, click here.

On Sept. 24 in New York City, Smith will lead an ensemble in a performance of his original oratorio composed in tribute to Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks. The concert, which takes place at The New School, is part of the annual Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT). (Details are posted at the FONT website.) DB

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