Wadada Leo Smith Takes Festival to West Coast


Wadada Leo Smith

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The CREATE festival made its West Coast debut in San Francisco’s Mission District on Dec. 15.

The inaugural CREATE was presented in trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith’s hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, back in April. But now, the music festival programmed around his work officially is bi-coastal.

Multi-media personality LeRoy “The Jazzcat” Downs was up from Southern California to MC the first of two nights, which began with a pair of compositions performed by a three-piece unit that featured electric guitarist Lamar Smith, the trumpeter’s grandson, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and sound designer Hardedge manipulating electronics.

Downs mentioned that one of CREATE’s goals is to promote the development of young artists, and the trio was able to interpret a pair of the elder Smith’s compositions through decidedly 21st-century ears.

An unaccompanied exploration of the drum kit by akLaff led to Smith’s ghostly sounding guitar tone, segueing to a biting lead. Hardedge’s sci-fi effects accompanied an akLaff solo, with Jesse Gilbert’s computer-generated visuals projected in the background. (Gilbert’s work recalled the animated element of Thom Yorke’s duo show in Oakland the previous night.)

A quartet with the elder Smith, the 2017 DownBeat Critics Poll winner in the Jazz Artist, Jazz Album and Trumpet categories; David Leikam on Moog keyboards; Anthony Davis on piano; and Oluyemi Thomas on bass clarinet performed Smith’s “Silence.”

Davis began with individual chords, while Smith directed the troupe with hand signals. Individuals and different groupings of instrumentalists then would play, interspersed with thoughtful pauses. The effect on the audience recalled John Cage’s “4:33.”

Slight electrical buzzes in the capacious performance space and the sounds of cars on the streets and pedestrians on the sidewalks of the neighborhood outside provided an unplanned backing. The musical performance and number of musicians interacting swelled as the piece developed, with Smith concluding a cappella.

RedKoral Quartet (Shalini Vijayan and Mona Thian, violins; Andrew McIntosh, viola; Ashley Walters, cello) was joined by the elder Smith and Hardedge for “Pacifica, String Quartet No. 12B.” The quartet began the piece channeling a palatable fervor, and Smith joined later with Hardedge providing what sounded like subtle digital feedback.

After an intermission, the second half of the night featured movements from Smith’s acclaimed America’s National Parks suite. It was the perfect way to bridge the earlier portion of the show, as players from each previous set participated.

“New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718,” “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park” and “Yellowstone: The First National Park And The Spirit of America—The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera And Its Ecosystem 1872” were listed in the program. The sequence replicated the order of the first of two discs of Smith’s Parks (Cuneiform Records).

Gilbert manipulated photos of the locations as the group evoked rich timbres through passages of arco contrabass and muted trumpet. Smith went with his inspiration and called an audible, changing the last piece from “Yellowstone” to “Yosemite: The Glaciers, The Falls, The Wells And The Valley Of Goodwill 1890,” which concludes the second disc.

Following the final song, Smith addressed the audience and gave a de-facto sermon, explaining the significance and importance of creating and experiencing art. This inspirational speech might have given a preview of the “Ankhrasmation Symbolic Language Scores Talk And Coffee” seminar the next afternoon.

Later that night, Smith was scheduled to present his “Earth” composition with pianist Motoko Honda, haegeum player Soo Yeon Lieu and percussionist William Winant. The ensemble ROVA was on deck with Smith’s “Saxophone Quartet No. 1: Ma’-Din, In Memory Of Sufi Master Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal,” and the Golden Quintet was set to close out the weekend with the remaining America’s National Park pieces.

Smith plans to bring the program to other cities in the future. DB

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