“Wadada Leo Smith, in the middle of his seventh decade now, has created a body or work that qualifies him as one of America's artistic geniuses, in a league with Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Louis Armstrong
, Duke Ellington
, Miles Davis
. A visionary America's National Parks
, along with virtually every recording he has released in the new millennium, confirms it.” —Dan McClenaghan
, All About Jazz (read review
Legendary composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith creates a new masterwork inspired by the country's most stunning landscapes
With America’s National Parks
, visionary composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith offers his latest epic collection, a six-movement suite inspired by the scenic splendor, historic legacy, and political controversies of the country’s public landscapes. Writing for his newly expanded Golden Quintet, Smith crafts six extended works that explore, confront and question the preserved natural resources that are considered the most hallowed ground in the U.S.—and some that should be.
The two-CD America’s National Parks
was released on October 14 on Cuneiform Records, shortly before Smith’s 75th birthday in December. It arrives, coincidentally, in the midst of celebrations for the centennial of the National Park Service, which was created by an act of Congress on August 25, 1916. The spark for the project, however, came from two places: Smith’s own research into the National Park system, beginning with Yellowstone, the world’s first national park; and Ken Burns’ 12-hour documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
“The idea that Ken Burns explored in that documentary was that the grandeur of nature was like a religion or a cathedral,” Smith says. “I reject that image because the natural phenomenon in creation, just like man and stars and light and water, is all one thing, just a diffusion of energy. My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.”
His 28-page score for America’s National Parks
was penned for his Golden Quintet, a fresh reconfiguration of the quartet that’s been a keystone of his expression for the last 16 years. Pianist Anthony Davis
, bassist John Lindberg
and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff
are joined by cellist Ashley Walters, affording the composer and bandleader new melodic and coloristic possibilities. “The cello as a lead voice with the trumpet is magnificent,” Smith says, “but when you look at the possibilities for melodic formation with the trumpet, the cello, the piano and the bass, that’s paradise for a composer and for a performer. My intent was to prolong or enhance the vitality of the ensemble to live longer.”
That’s an enticing prospect given the vigor and daring on bold display throughout America’s National Parks
. Where many composers would be seduced into romantic excess by the sweeping vistas and majestic panoramas of Yellowstone’s grand waterfalls or Kings Canyon’s towering redwoods, Smith takes a far more investigative and expansive view, with inventive and complex scores that prompt stunning improvisations from his ensemble. In fact, he has yet to visit many of the parks paid homage in the pieces, opting instead for thorough historical research.
“You don't really need to visit a park to write about a park,” Smith insists. “Debussy wrote ‘La Mer,’ which is about the sea, and he wasn’t a seafaring person. I would defend his right to do that, and I would contend that ‘La Mer’ is a masterpiece that clearly reflects his psychological connection with the idea of the sea.”
The idea of the parks, rather than their physical and geographical beauty, is central to Smith’s conception for this music. In its marrying of natural landmarks and political challenges it can be traced back to both of the composer’s most recent epic masterpieces, The Great Lakes
and especially Ten Freedom Summers
. “It became a political issue for me because the people that they set up to control and regulate the parks were politicians,” Smith says. “My feeling is that the parks should be independent of Congress and organized around an independent source who has no political need to be reelected. So it’s a spiritual/psychological investigation mixed with the political dynamics.”
Smith’s suite also takes inventive liberties with the definition of a “national park;” half of its inspirations aren’t, technically speaking, considered as such. The album opens with “New Orleans: The National Culture Park,” which argues that the entire Crescent City deserves to be recognized for its influential contributions to American history and culture. “New Orleans was the first cultural center in America and therefore it produced the first authentic American music,” Smith says.
The second piece, “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park,” takes an even broader view, suggesting that the African-American musicologist, author and founder of the journal The Black Perspective in Music, to which Smith has contributed, should be honored for her efforts to document a musical common ground shared by all Americans. Another piece represents the “Deep and Dark Dreams” of the Mississippi River, which Smith calls “a memorial site which was used as a dumping place for black bodies by hostile forces in Mississippi. I use the word ‘dark’ to show that these things are buried or hidden, but the body itself doesn’t stay hidden; it floats up.”
The other three pieces are based on more conventionally recognized national parks: Yellowstone, which became the first place in the world so designated in 1872; Sequoia & Kings Canyon, whose trees Smith marvels at as some of the largest and oldest living things on the planet; and Yosemite, which contains striking glaciers and some of the deepest lakes in the world.America’s National Parks
arrives at a time of prolific imagination and universal renown for the composer. Earlier this year Smith, part of the first generation of musicians to come out of Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), was the recipient of a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award and an honorary doctorate from CalArts. In March ECM released a cosmic rhythm with each stroke
, a duo recording with pianist Vijay Iyer
While these preserved landscapes offer the inspiration of powerful natural beauty, Smith’s always open-minded view of the world leads him to find that same inspiration wherever he is. “Every concrete house is from nature,” he says. “Every plastic airplane that flies 300 people across the ocean comes out of nature. Every air conditioner conditions a natural piece of air. I think that the human being is constantly enfolded in organic nature and constructed nature, so I’m constantly inspired, inside the house or outside the house.”2016 is the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service
The national parks represent an idea born in this country, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most magnificent and sacred places in our nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone."—Ken Burns & Dayton Duncan
On August 25th, 1916, the Organic Act was signed into power by President Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, creating the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner … as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The idea of creating National Parks—setting aside land to be owned by the American people in perpetuity, for the public's pleasure and national pride—was an American innovation. The first example of this dates back to 1872, when the US federal government under President Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," creating the first and oldest National Park in the world. The concept of national parks spread worldwide as the US designated additional parks and other nations began to establish their own. The 1916 Organic Act ensured the future of America's National Parks
by creating a special federal bureau under the U.S. Department of the Interior to be their stewards, and to manage and preserve them.
The National Archives in Washington DC displayed the Organic Act of 1916 in a special exhibit throughout August 2016. Other celebrations honoring the National Parks Centennial (National Park Service Centennial) are being held across the U.S. through 2016. For more info, please see: National Park Service
and National Park Foundation
The National Park Service is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“The national parks are more than landmarks, monuments, and territories, more than mountains, forests, lakes, and geologic wonders. They represent a piece of the American soul.”—Edwin Bernbaum
Cuneiform Records' release of Wadada Leo Smith's America's National Parks
auspiciously coincides with the 2016 National Parks Centennial celebrations. Wadada Leo Smith is one of America's leading composers and trumpeters and one of the most respected creative musicians in the world. His recordings and performances have been acclaimed by the international music press, and the Ankhrasmation scores he creates for some music are now in the art world's spotlight, currently exhibited at the Hammer Museums' Made in L.A. 2016 exhibit and lauded with a 2016 Mohn Award. Smith's prior release on Cuneiform was Ten Freedom Summers
, a four-disc set celebrating the American Civil Rights Movement, for which he was named one of the 3 finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. America's National Parks
follows in the musical, conceptual/political and spiritual footsteps of Ten Freedom Summers
, continuing Smith's dedication to celebrating America's best ideas, most monumental achievements, and most noble ideals.
My focus is on the... idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens: those who have passed on before, those who are here in the present, and those who will come in the future. The... collective notion about common property, inheritance, longevity, transformation, and sustaining beauty down the line...”—Wadada Leo Smith