Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and mercurial composer working at the edges of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. Perhaps the rightful heir to Miles Davis, Smith is known for his introverted style of playing and his incredible use of space. In the 1960s he gained experience performing in R&B groups, later playing in the military, and in 1967 he was a member of Chicago’s AACM, going on to form his own group, New Dalta Ahkri, playing with such free jazz luminaries as Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake, and Anthony Braxton, among others. He was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for the incredible American civil rights-era odyssey, Ten Freedom Summers (2012).

Smith's Golden Quartet at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
Smith’s Golden Quartet at the Guelph Jazz Festival.
William Parker introduced Smith and his quartet. The two jazz luminaries share an embrace.
William Parker introduced Smith and his quartet. The two jazz luminaries share an embrace.

At 273 minutes the four-disc box set, Ten Freedom Summers, is an epic free jazz/classical/astral work that rightfully belongs in the jazz lexicon alongside Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, or Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige. Ten Freedom Summers evokes the civil rights movement through a series of freedom motifs and dedications, including a piece dedicated to Emmett Till, the Dred Scott case, the black church, Rosa Parks, and moves forwards (or backwards) to September 11th. Smith can shift the focus on an entire improvising ensemble at the sudden sound of a single note. While Ten Freedom Summers is meticulously composed, Smith wrote improvised elements into his masterwork, which could be heard by Smith and his Golden Quartet during their performance at this year’s 20th Anniversary Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) in moments of atomized energy. Sections of Ten Freedom Summers were performed at the GJF with Smith’s Golden Quartet of Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on double bass, and Anthony Brown on drums.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders.
Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders.

Have a listen to “Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Wadada Leo Smith from Ten Freedom Summers:

Also, check out the Golden Quartet’s “Rosa Parks” (excerpt), from the album Tabligh:

All Photos by Paul Watkins.

Dawn of Midi

Dawn of Mid after their Guelph performance.
Dawn of Midi after their Guelph performance.

Dawn of Midi is an instrumental trio from Brooklyn comprised of pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni, and percussionist Qasim Naqvi. They make minimalist dance music that sounds as if their instruments are run through a digital midi interface. In actuality, all that is being played and heard is acoustic piano, drums, and standup bass. Dawn of Midi continue to craft their unique sound, building upon their semi-improvised and critically acclaimed debut (and aptly titled) First (2010). Their second effort as a group, Dysnomia (2013) is tirelessly composed, replete with polyrhythmic and locked grooves, and garnered praise from music critics from the New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Radiolab, among others. Rightly so, as Dawn of Midi’s performance at this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival did not disappoint. The trio has a way of replicating a single beat or note, as their festival performance covered Dysnomia in real-time (front to back), with each musician in tandem, hardly slipping out of a single polyrhythmic groove. While the concert wasn’t improvised in the typical sense, it was quite apparent that a slew of improvisation sessions are what lead to their disciplined, well-oiled super-trio generating a dizzying array of textures that blend and bend together in the immersive listening experience of Dysnomia. As Sun Ra reminds us, “there is discipline in freedom, and freedom in discipline.”

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Belyamani echoes Ra when he describes that “Playing a locked groove like we do on this record involves a lot of discipline and hard work […] You don’t start out that way unless you’re a group of folk musicians from the same village” (group website). Watching Dawn of Midi live it was apparent how measured and cadenced their playing was, which provided a great counterpoint to Marianne Trudel, William Parker, and Hamid Drake, who followed Dawn of Midi as the second part of double bill with an abundantly improvised set. It was almost as if time stood still for the 45 minutes or so that Dawn of Midi played, as one rhythmic phrase blended into the border of another one until the rhythm gradually changed like an autochthonous machine moving seamlessly between different musical episodes. Dawn of Midi’s composition occupies a space of paradox as their sound puts electronic and acoustic music into productive dialogue, reminding us that all instruments are tools to express human emotion and convey a concept.

That concept for Dawn of Midi might be as lucid as blending sonic possibility within the aesthetics of format. A format found in the emotive potential for creating locked grooves that emulate computer music, and yet which sound incredibly human—meditative even. Dawn of Midi are masters of their instruments: they were able to achieve complex sonic patterns with as little as a single note. I watched in awe, as pianist Belyamani played a few notes on the piano with his right hand and then damped them with his free hand inside the piano to create muted harmonics that were at times resonant of a drum. The rapport between the three members made for an incredible set of music, seamlessly blending tracks like a DJ would with a gentle touch on the crossfader. The music circles back and we are left with a dawn of possibilities.

Pianist Belyamani.
Pianist Belyamani.

The new album Dysnomia, I assume, is named after the recent discovery of Dysnomia (2005), the only known moon of the dwarf planet Eris, which is the largest dwarf planet in our solar system. The word comes from the Greek word meaning “lawlessness.” Dawn of Midi continues to defy expectations and break the laws of how electronic, jazz, or improvised music is often marketed. We can only anticipate what other mixes, sonic discoveries, and dawnings Dawn of Midi has in store for us in the future.

Check out a clip from their latest work, Dysnomia.

The entire album can be streamed or purchased digitally here.

All Photos by Paul Watkins.