Live review

Wadada Leo Smith at Vision Festival, NYC

Wadada Leo Smith

(Vision Festival Day 1, Roulette, Brooklyn. 21 June 2022. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Wadada Leo Smith with Patricia Nicholson, founder and artistic director of Arts for Art.
Photo credit: Eva Kapanadze

The first day of the 26th Annual Vision Festival celebrated Wadada Leo Smith by awarding him a Lifetime Achievement Award to honour his pivotal role in creative music (free jazz, essentially). There were two immediate conclusions from the evening’s showcase: that this award is being given to him just as much for his work as a composer and conductor as for his work as a musician.

It was a showcase of many sets, carefully choreographed by Smith with a robust disregard for the typical requirements of an audience – breaks were few and far between and his addressing the crowd was typically done in a gruff voice without the corrupting aid of a microphone. Within three hours Smith presented: compositions for RedKoral Quartet, leading a wider group of the string quartet supplemented by drums and two grand pianos spooning at the side of the stage, and directed the quartet in conversation with a poetry recital from Thulani Davies. Each composition was a multi-part piece, live orchestrated by Smith from the front of stage with a mix of traditional sheet music and unique illustrations to guide the group, and waved at various members at various key moments to cue them up to the next phase. These are expansive, largely unhurried songs, spacious compositions with cautious progressions which allow for improvisation within a framework, although the boundaries between planned and spontaneous are delightfully blurred.

Wadada Leo Smith leading RedKoral Quartet (Andrew McIntosh, pictured).
Photo credit: Eva Kapanadze

Curiously, fewer people on the stage led to fewer people for Smith to control, and consequently the better chance to see Smith’s varied creativity in action. It was in his duo sessions with Pheeroan akLaff on drums, at the opening and near the end of the evening, that we saw the greatest dynamic and textural variation and energy, with Smith focusing attention on either himself and his trumpet, curled down towards his floor mic, or in directing akLaff to embark on an array of worked directions and fills. But it was when Smith was left alone on the stage as the sole protagonist of ‘Butterfly Silver’ a short 16mm film by Robert Fenz – of Smith in high contrast in a doorway with his solo contemplative trumpet – that we were best reminded of his prior role as a mesmerizing musician 

Wadada Leo Smith is a public figure, so a fine line needs to be drawn at celebratory award events, a balance struck between maintaining that focus, drawing on his history and gravitas, while avoiding the tendency for the event to become wrapped up in its own self-importance. At Roulette on Tuesday, Vision Festival had collected a supportive crowd, the sort of crowd who greeted the trumpeter with a standing ovation on entry. Typically, I would say the music that was being celebrated requires focus and attention, and the possibility to get lost in your own space. And yet there were times when the profile and scale of the event meant there were photographers busy photographing, organisers toing and froing through the side, and eager crowd members snacking like they’re at a ballgame.

However, perhaps this audio-sensory confusion is all part of the plan, and Creative Music is about more than the music itself, but something which goes much deeper. Indeed, the very opening of the show could be seen as having defined the atmosphere for the night. At the start of the night Smith took the stage ahead of the official host Patricia Nicholson. Without a microphone, or a speech planned, Smith embarks on some words. Or, I should say embarked, as within less than a sentence, someone yells out from the crowd that they can’t hear him. Smith responds -“If you can’t hear me, feel me. And if you can’t feel me, see me”. It was in this collective space between feeling, seeing and hearing that Smith and the Vision Festival met the audience for a celebration of his work.

LINKS: Wadada Leo Smith

Vision Festival / June 21 programme

Categories: Live review

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