Composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s 80th year has been a busy one.
Two three-CD box sets of his music, “Trumpet” and “Sacred Ceremonies,” were released by the Finnish record label TUM in May, with a four-CD box set (“The Chicago Symphonies”) and a single-disc album (“A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday”) slated for release Nov. 19.
All of that music was recorded between 2015 and 2018. In May, however, Smith and pianist/composer/Harvard professor Vijay Iyer premiered the suite “Requiem X,” their tribute to Malcolm X, in a concert streamed by the University of California-San Diego.
On Thursday, Smith’s busyness will become localized, when Harvard’s music department premieres “Mercy,” Smith’s three-part suite celebrating essential hospital workers. The performance, recorded Sept. 25 in New Haven, will stream as part of a webinar also featuring Smith and Iyer in a live dialogue and Q&A with audience members.
“Andrew Cyrille, Vijay Iyer, and I recorded a really beautiful session for release on Oct. 14,” recounts Smith by phone. “It’s a very reflective work that looks at the notion of love and kindness. It looks at the idea of generosity and compassion, and also looks at the notion of agape, mercy, and love.
“Agape is the Greek word for love,” he elaborates, “but it’s a kind of love that has nothing to do with the sentimentality that we express amongst each other, like, ‘Hey, I love you.’ No, it’s the love that’s manifested and demonstrated, the kind of quality that the almighty has for humanity which is in turn reflected when we use our higher notion about ourselves and actually function and perform acts of love for each other.”
Iyer has collaborated with Smith on previous projects, and notes that he and Smith have each worked extensively with the drummer/composer Cyrille individually. But “Mercy” was the first time they worked together as a trio. And as is always the case with Smith’s music, his partners were expected to contribute their own ideas to shaping the suite as they performed it.
“‘Mercy’ is technically Wadada’s composition,” says Iyer. “A creative musician is a generative role. [Smith] makes music as a composer for that context, where the artists involved are bringing their creative language to the table. That’s the history of this music that we’re all a part of. He’s just more forthright about naming it.”
Smith considers rehearsing musicians of Iyer’s and Cyrille’s caliber inhibiting. “People call it preparation, but I call it deconstructing the possibilities that may be ahead,” he explains. “Rehearsal constantly wipes away the idea of how you can actually impact this particular musical moment in a public setting, you see.
“And I’ll give an example. It’s really easy. If you walk up a mountain the first time, it’s one of the most amazing walks in your life and it can never be repeated. And if you walk up it again five years or two weeks later, it’s here, and the experience is fresh, but it’s not the same thing.”
Smith was exposed to music early growing up in Leland, Miss. His stepfather, Alex “Little Bill” Wallace, a professional musician, was among the early adapters of electric guitar to country blues. Smith himself performed with Little Milton and other blues artists before serving several years in the Army and then moving to Chicago in 1967, where he became an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Like many AACM members, Smith rejects having his music labeled jazz. But he gladly acknowledges its rootedness in the blues, and how his approach to making music resembles how certain bluesmen and other creative musicians worked.
“The blues is the heart of the nation,” he explains. “Blues is the reservoir and archiver of everything that is in the human spirit and the psychological part of you. And regarding this idea of form and structure: We say that form and structure is always preordained. It’s not. John Lee Hooker would play only one chord or four chords or five chords as long as he wanted to recite poetry there. The same with Elmore James. The same with all of these great artists.”
Smith’s music tends to focus on major historical themes and individuals. His box set “The Freedom Summers,” a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music, included tributes to Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and others. Other major projects have been devoted to America’s National Parks and the Great Lakes as well as to Rosa Parks and Thelonious Monk.
The single-disc collaborative album with Iyer and drummer Jack DeJohnette coming in November opens with a Smith piece inspired by another historical figure.
“I remember the day that Billie Holiday died,” Smith recalls. “I was a young guy in Mississippi. I came up in a matriarchal family, and women power has always been the most assertive moment in my development. I see Billie Holiday as being one of the procurers of the civil rights movement, which she’s not often given credit for. She was a courageous woman. When I think about it I get goose pimples.”
Smith’s “Chicago Symphonies,” recorded with his Great Lakes Quartet (Henry Threadgill on alto sax and flute, John Lindberg on bass, DeJohnette on drums), includes pieces dedicated to presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama and to musicians who are either from or, like Smith, spent several formative years living in Chicago, among them Louis Armstrong, Sun Ra, and a number of AACM colleagues, including his early collaborator Anthony Braxton.
Smith’s yearlong celebration of his 80th birthday will culminate on the day itself, Dec. 18, with a streaming concert of duet, trio, and quartet performances with Pheeroan akLaff on drums, Sylvie Courvoisier and Erika Dohi on piano, and Lamar Smith on guitar to be broadcast on his website and YouTube. Smith also hopes to make available the videos for “Requiem X” and “Mercy” on his website this year.
But the music won’t end there. Smith’s flurry of activity will continue into 2022 with the release of two additional TUM box sets: the seven-CD “String Quartets 1-12″ and the four-CD “Duets,” the latter featuring Smith paired for an entire disc apiece with each of four drummers: Cyrille, DeJohnette, akLaff, and Han Bennink.
WADADA LEO SMITH
“A Dialogue: Creativity and Mercy with a Reflection on the Role of the Artist in Today’s World,” featuring the world premiere of “Mercy,” followed by a virtual conversation and Q&A session with Smith and Vijay Iyer. Free. Register at https://harvard.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_aocX9uKMSNyfhbLIA3F4hA