Arts & Culture

Wadada Leo Smith plays solo Monk and “Divine Love” at Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN

Iconic composer, trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize finalist Wadada Leo Smith performs two concerts at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN.  On Saturday, March 23 at 2:30 p.m. Smith will perform a solo concert based on his acclaimed 2017 recording Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk. The concert takes place at The Standard.  OnSunday, March 24 at 6p.m. Smith’s Nda with vibraphonist Bobby Naughton and Dwight Andrews on winds will perform Divine Love at the Tennessee Theatre. Weekend and festival day passes available.

Smith’s 2017 CD Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk presents four of Monk’s best known pieces (“Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” and “Round Midnight”) alongside original compositions that Smith calls “profiles” of Monk. Adam Shatz in the New York Review of Books called the recording “extraordinary…All that one hears is the celestial sound of Smith’s trumpet and the silences around it. The music could not be sparer or richer.” Smith feels a strong affinity with the late music icon. “Most people would never realize that I am closer to Thelonious Monk than to any other artist,” he writes in the liner notes, observing Monk’s sensitivity to silence as “a vital field where musical ideas exist as a result of what was played before and after.”

Smith’s Divine Love, released in 1978 on the ECM label, is one of music’s classic albums. Vijay Iyer calls it “one of the greatest recorded works of all time.” In a 5-star review in the Guardian, John Fordham notes, “Smith has absorbed the approaches of all the trumpet heroes and redeployed them within a bold, vital and often ritualistic setting.” Naughton and Andrews, who were featured on the recording, will join Smith at Big Ears for a performance of his haunting suite.

Trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Wadada Leo Smith is one of the most boldly original and influential artists of his time. Transcending the bounds of genre or idiom, he distinctly defines his music, tirelessly inventive in both sound and approach, as “Creative Music.”

For the last five decades, Smith has been a member of the legendary AACM collective, pivotal in its wide-open perspectives on music and art in general. He has carried those all-embracing concepts into his own work, expanding upon them in myriad ways.

Throughout his career, Smith has been recognized for his groundbreaking work.  A finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, he received the 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award and earned an honorary doctorate from CalArts, where he was also celebrated as Faculty Emeritus. In addition, he received the Hammer Museum’s 2016 Mohn Award for Career Achievement “honoring brilliance and resilience.” In 2018 he received the Religion and The Arts Award from the American Academy of Religion.

Smith regularly earns multiple spots on the DownBeat International Critics Poll. In 2017 he topped three categories: Best Jazz Artist, Trumpeter of the Year and Jazz Album of the Year, and was featured as the subject of a cover story in August 2017. The Jazz Journalists Association also honored Smith as their 2017 Musician of the Year as well as 2017 Duo of the Year for his work with Vijay Iyer. The JJA named him their 2016 Trumpeter of the Year, 2015 Composer of the Year, and 2013 Musician of the Year, and he has earned top billing in two categories in the JazzTimes Critics Poll as Artist of the Year and Composer of the Year.

In October 2015 The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago presented the first comprehensive exhibition of Smith’s Ankhrasmation scores, which use non-standard visual directions, making them works of art in themselves as well as igniting creative sparks in the musicians who perform them. In 2016, these scores were also featured in exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and Kadist in San Francisco.

Born December 18, 1941 in Leland, Mississippi, Smith’s early musical life began at age thirteen when he became involved with the Delta blues and jazz traditions performing with his stepfather, bluesman Alex Wallace. He received his formal musical education from the U.S. Military band program (1963), the Sherwood School of Music (1967-69), and Wesleyan University (1975-76).

Smith has released more than 50 albums as a leader on labels including ECM, Moers, Black Saint, Tzadik, Pi Recordings, TUM, Leo and Cuneiform. His diverse discography reveals a recorded history centered around important issues that have impacted his world, exploring the social, natural and political environment of his times with passion and fierce intelligence. Rosa Parks: Pure Love, an Oratorio of Seven Songs will be released on February 15, 2019 via TUM Records. His 2016 recording, America’s National Parks earned a place on numerous best of the year lists including the New York Times, NPR Music and many others. Smith’s landmark 2012 civil rights opus Ten Freedom Summers was called “A staggering achievement [that] merits comparison to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in sobriety and reach.”

About the author


News and art, national and local. Began as alternative weekly in 1990 in Buffalo, NY. Publishing content online since 1996.

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