Wadada Leo Smith Biography

Leo Smith, 18 December 1941, Leland, Mississippi, USA. Smith’s stepfather was blues guitarist Alex ‘Little Bill’ Wallace and in his early teens Smith led his own blues band. He was already proficient on trumpet, which he later studied in college and continued to play in various army bands. In 1967 he moved to Chicago, where he joined the AACM, recording with Muhal Richard Abrams and Maurice ‘Kalaparusha’ McIntyre and becoming a member of Anthony Braxton’s trio. In 1969, the group moved to Paris, but broke up a year later. Smith returned to the USA and settled in Connecticut. He recorded again with Abrams and Braxton in the Creative Construction Company and also worked with Marion Brown in the Creative Improvisation Ensemble and in a duo format. Smith continued to play occasionally with AACM colleagues such as Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell (‘L-R-G’) during the 70s, but his chief focus of interest now was his own music. He set up a label, Kabell, formed a group, New Dalta Ahkri, and also began to develop his solo music in a series of concerts and records (Creative Music-1, Solo Music/Ahkreanvention). New Dalta Ahkri, whose members included Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake and Wes Brown, made a handful of albums renowned for their spacious, abstract beauty, as did Smith’s trio (with Bobby Naughton and Dwight Andrews). Divine Love also featured guest artists Lester Bowie, Charlie Haden and Kenny Wheeler, while Spirit Catcher had one track (‘The Burning Of Stones’) on which Smith played with a trio of harpists. Smith’s trumpet style blended the terseness of Miles Davis with the lyricism of Booker Little (his two chief influences), while his music was based on the innovatory concepts of ‘ahkreanvention’ and ‘rhythm units’, alternative methods of structuring improvisation that he had been refining since the late 60s. A writer too, his Notes (8 Pieces) set out his views on African American music history and included scathing attacks on jazz journalism and the mainstream music business. The late 70s found him making several trips to Europe, playing at Derek Bailey’s Company Week (Company 5, 6, 7) and in 1979 recording both the big band Budding Of A Rose and the first of two trio discs with Peter Kowald and drummer Gunter Sommer.

In 1983 he recorded Procession Of The Great Ancestry, with Naughton and Kahil El’Zabar among the players (‘a music of ritual and blues, of space and light’, enthused Wire). The same year he visited Canada to record Rastafari with the Bill Smith trio, the title signalling a conversion to Rastafarianism that led him, on later albums, to explore more popular forms, including reggae (Jah Music, Human Rights - though the latter also has one side of free improvisation with Kowald and Sommer from 1982). He also changed his name to Wadada Leo Smith.

At the end of the 80s Smith was still playing in the New York area, but was also working as a teacher and had released no new recordings for several years. Hailed by Braxton as ‘a genius’ and by Anthony Davis as ‘one of the unsung heroes of American music’, the belated appearance of his Procession Of The Great Ancestry in 1990 prompted many to lament his long absence from the recording studio: as writer Graham Lock put it, ‘such a silence hurts us all’. He broke his silence in the 90s with two richly ambitious sets, Kulture Jazz on ECM Records and Tao-Njia on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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