Wadada Leo Smith, Residency April 21-26, 44 Year Retrospective, AACM 50th Anniversary, at The Stone in New York’s Lower Eastside
The first evening at The Stone, a space so esoterically situated that there is no address. Patrons enter into the magic kingdom through a singularly magic door where they give the correct password or $20 admission donation and voila the journey continues. Note I did not say starts (smile). Second Street at Avenue C, around the corner from a bodega where I felt right at home when I saw in the refrigerator my favorite kombucha drink— GTs Enlightened Organic Raw Kombucha, Gingerade. I had been flying friendly skies all morning and needed a pick up, so of course I indulged. I also saw carrot chips and okra chips; jus up the street there was a Good for You Store where one could order fresh fruit and veggie juices. New Yorkers are health people or at least have healthy options (smile).
I was early (5:30 p.m.), so I got a chance to watch set up—and listen to the banter between artists, Wadada and his artist/musician friends whom he hadn’t played with in 20-30-40 years. When I asked Mr. Dwight Rev. Andrews why, he said he’d been working with August Wilson on five of his plays which were always workshopped at Yale where the director Lloyd Richards served as the dean of the Yale University School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. Wadada spoke of rehearsals there with Dwight Andrews and Bobby Naughton whom opened the set with a piece written for him: Changes. This was followed by Divine Love. The men closed with a work that highlight Andrew’s on bass clarinet. I love bass & baritone anything, especially bass clarinet and bass flute, bass saxophone. Now how often does one get to hear such? Rarely. Outside Don Byron, Dr. Michael White, Hamiet Bluiett, Oluyemi Thomas (Positive Knowledge) . . . missed Eric Dolphy, (smile), I haven’t had much listening opportunities.
It’s hard to hide in The Stone, specifically if the artist, Wadada steps into the shadows out of the spotlight and looks at each of the spectators. It was an uneasy shift for some to make, but he wouldn’t let them retreat. Wadada was more talkative during the second set the first. As already mentioned, he kidded with the audience and gave a few short talks about he and the men during days when as artists, their belief in art called Wadada and by extension his friends to stand for Truth, which on occasion meant they were arrested.
“What’s so beautiful is we’ve lived a long time mow,” Wadada says. “[Each of the men] trusted the musicality of the ensemble.
"I don’t know if you know it or not," he continued, "[that] to use silence in the deepest way inside your music, that’s hard.
"That’s hard, because everybody feels that something should be inside that space.
"Guess what? They’re right. That something that is in that space is actually silence. Silence has a presence. There’s a profound presence, and if you can follow the beginning of the silence as it comes off of the sound, and when the next sound enters if you could follow that you’ve got something fantastic (?), because it’s hard to do.
"Once silence drifts in, you have to poise your consciousness in a certain way to make it work. And the moment it slips away, you have lost that pose. And sometimes you can recover, but not often. Not often. So the silence is about sharing a presence that’s greater than any silence could ever make. It is also very dramatic, and if you listen closely, you can hear the heartbeat—you can feel the heartbeat inside the room. It is not just the imagination. The human being has amazing skills. And I rest my case."
He bows to applause (smile). And the music begins with Bobby Naughton’s rendition of “Changes.”
It’s a healing journey we are on as are the artists. Wadada does not forget the audience. The journey which might feel solo, is actually not. He told me after the concert when I asked about the first set. He said it was improvised; however, he followed a chart and the other musicians engaged one another and the music without compositional notes. I found it interesting that unlike a written composition, if I understood Wadada correctly, his musical composition is not mapped with the destinations finitely plotted out. His is an open document, which means the conclusion if present can change. Perhaps it also means that the end is a collective decision.
The work is a fluid document—not exactly what the notes indicate, then again, exactly what they indicate. Let’s just say that while Wadada might have been playing a work previously composed, the set titled: Sonic River, as he engaged John Zorn on alto sax and George Lewis on trombone, what happened at The Stone Tuesday evening in the first set was not, if anticipated, repeatable as the moment was the canvas where time, sound and space converged to create the unique experience we witnessed.
“It is not just my imagination.” Wadada says re: silences, and I concur re: what I witnessed last night whether is was the first set or second. Performance art lives in the heart and soul of the medium which is not one dimensional. Music is to be heard, seen, felt.
These words seek to capture what is already gone (smile).
I am not certain if any of what we experienced could happen again. The men had not performed together in forever--it was a bit family reunion of artists. A reunion party which continues tonight through Sunday evening. What is cool about tonight is that there will be a free talk at 7 p.m.
Between sets the men and other honorees retreat to a literal basement where I hear laughter and strand of musical lines wafting upward through the door I see but do not enter. I tried to read Jung, the section I am in speaks about the mandala, signifying, a return to the center or core, oneness. Jung was fond of drawing this concentric circular object which is a unity-- the Self attainable through a process he called individuation.
When Wadada speaks about listening to the silences, I think this is where oneness resides.
To be continued . . .