A consistently adventurous trumpeter who has stuck to playing avant-garde jazz and classical music throughout his career, Leo Smith's dry, introverted style (which makes extensive use of space) is a strong contrast to the more jubilant flights of Lester Bowie. Smith originally played drums, mellophone, and French horn before settling on trumpet. He has also created a systemic musical language he calls Ankhrasmation, which has proved to be significant in his development as an artist and as an educator. He has won numerous awards, including three National Endowment for the Arts grants, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, an NEA recording grant and a Doris Duke Artist Award.
Ishmael Leo Smith was born in Leland, Mississippi in 1941. His musical life commenced in high school, where he played in concert and marching bands. He played French horn, drums, and even mellophone before moving to trumpet. His formal musical education is credited to his stepfather Alex Wallace, the U.S. Military Band program (1963), and the Sherwood School of Music (1967-1969). He began playing in R&B combos in the early '60s and in Army bands before becoming an early member of Chicago's AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). In 1972, he founded his own label, Kabell, to release his recordings. His first solo album, Creative Music: 1 (Six Solo Improvisations) appeared on the label in 1972.
He co-founded the avant improvisational group Creative Construction Company with violinist Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, which toured Europe during the late '60s. They recorded a trio album, Silence, in 1974 for Freedom Records, and a self-titled offering in 1975 while Smith was studying ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. Also listed in the latter album's credits were Steve McCall, Richard Davis, and Muhal Richard Abrams. The recording supervisor for the date was Ornette Coleman.
In 1973, Smith had his writing on music philosophy, Notes (8 Pieces) Source a New World Music: Creative Music, published by Kiom Press. During his Wesleyan studies, Smith also taught at the University of New Haven. While in New Haven, he formed the New Dalta Ahkri, an under-documented band whose revolving membership included Henry Threadgill, Davis, and Oliver Lake. They recorded two albums for Kabell, 1975's Reflectativity and 1977's Song of Humanity (Kanta Pri Homoro). He also recorded in the Creative Improvisation Ensemble with Marion Brown in 1975 (and played on the saxophonist's seminal Geechee Recollections album). After leaving Wesleyan, Smith played with Braxton in 1976, and recorded with Derek Bailey's Company. He released Spirit Catcher under his own name on Nessa Records in 1979. That same year he signed a non-exclusive deal with Manfred Eicher's ECM label, which released the legendary Divine Love album.
In the '80s, Smith worked extensively in Europe, playing and recording with bassist Peter Kowald and percussionist Günter Sommer. Together, they released Touch the Earth (1980) and If You Want the Kernels, You Have to Break the Shells (1982) for Germany's FMP label. Smith had taken up playing the mbira (an African thumb piano) seriously, and added it to his instrumental arsenal with some regularity from this point forward. With Sommer and Kowald, he also recorded Human Rights in 1986, co-released by Kabell/Gramm. About this time, he became a Rastafarian and changed his name to Wadada Leo Smith; he has been recording under that name ever since.
In 1989, Smith cut Procession of the Great Ancestry under his own name on Chief Records and Interludes of Breath and Substance with composer and pianist Matthew Goodheart. In 1992, Smith and Japanese percussionist Yoshisaburo Toyozumi released Cosmos Has Spirit on Scissors Records. The following year he began teaching at Cal Arts' Herb Alpert School of Music, and released his second date for ECM, the acclaimed Kulture Jazz, on which he performs solo on a variety of instruments. In 1995, his "Odwira" for 12 multi-ensembles (featuring 52 musicians) was performed at Cal Arts. He began his long and fruitful association with John Zorn's Tzadik imprint in 1996 with the release of Tao-Njia; his Noh composition work "Heart's Reflections" was first performed by a large group at Merkin Concert Hall the same year.
Smith began recording prolifically for a number of labels, all the while teaching and touring and writing scores for his three prevalent ensembles — Golden Quartet, Silver Orchestra, and Organic — as well as solo work. In 1997 he issued the little-known trio date Prataksis with Vinny Golia and Bertram Turetzky on Ninewinds, and in 1998 he began his association with guitarist Henry Kaiser in an ad hoc band called Yo Miles!, an electric avant jazz-funk ensemble devoted to the work of Miles Davis' electric period. They released their first, self-titled album for Shanachie Entertainment that year. Also in 1998, Condor, Autumn Wind was issued in collaboration with his poet wife, Harumi Makino Smith. In 1999, Light Upon Light was released by Tzadik, and his first album of contemporary classical music, Southwest Chamber Music, arrived on the Cambria label.
At the turn of the century, Smith issued two albums for Tzadik: Reflectativity, with Anthony Davis and Malachi Favors Mogoustous, and the debut offering from the Golden Quartet — with drummer Jack DeJohnette added to the lineup. During this decade, various classical and new music ensembles began to perform his work, including the Kronos Quartet, the California EAR Unit, the New York New Music Ensemble, the AACM Orchestra, and ne(x)tworks. He reunited with Braxton for two albums on Pi Recordings: Organic Resonance and Saturn, Conjunct the Grand Canyon in a Sweet Embrace in 2003 and 2004. The latter year was especially productive, as he issued Lake Biwa (Tzadik) and saw his 2003 participation in both the electronica unit Spring Heel Jack's jazz experiment The Sweetness of the Water and John Zorn's month-long 50th birthday concert series/celebration with the composer/saxophonist and drummer Susie Ibarra, released on Thirsty Ear and Tzadik, respectively. The latter label was also responsible for a gorgeous retrospective box set entitled The Kabell Years, 1971-1979, documenting Smith's label.
Smith issued three recordings in 2005. First was Snakish on Leo Records, with Walter and Katya Quintus, Miroslav Tadic, and Mark Nauseef; this was followed by the second Yo Miles! recording, Upriver (Cuneiform), and the collaborative album Dreams & Secrets, which paired a Smith/Kaiser unit called N'Da Kulture with African vocalist Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited. In 2006, Smith oversaw the first performance of his work "Tabligh" for double ensemble performed by the Golden Quartet & Classical Persian Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall. He also collaborated with Adam Rudolph on the album Compassion (co-released by Kabell and Meta). "Tabligh" was performed again at the Aklbank Music Festival by the Golden Quartet and Suleyman Erguner's classical Turkish ensemble. In 2008, it finally appeared on Cuneiform in 2008 with pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson in the lineup of the Golden Quartet. A documentary film about this band was released that year entitled Freedom Now, directed by Jacques Goldstein, and made available on DVD.
Smith saw reissues of various recordings for both Nessa and ECM in 2008 and 2009, and released two important new recordings. The first was the widely acclaimed Spiritual Dimensions for Cuneiform in 2009. A double-disc, it featured Smith in both quintet and nonet settings amid a stellar cast of players including members of the Golden Quartet and guitarists Brandon Ross and Nels Cline, to name a few. The second album was a duet recording with DeJohnette entitled America on Tzadik. It included the composition "The Blue Mountain Sun Drummer (For Ed Blackwell)" that inspired a 2010 album of the same name on Kabell. This 2010 CD offered a live performance of Blackwell and the trumpeter from October of 1986 at Brandeis University.
Smith began the second decade of the new century with the double-disc Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform) by his Organic band. The album does not feature his composition of the same name from 1995, but instead includes all-new material, performed by a large group whose playing ranges from electric, avant, funky jazz to systematically improvised encounters. Smith created a new trio called Mbira in 2011, featuring drummer Pheeroan akLaff and Min Xiao-Fen on pipa and voice (Smith plays trumpet and flügelhorn — there is no mbira on the album). Their debut recording, Dark Lady of the Sonnets, appeared in early 2012. Later that year, Smith also released his four-disc civil rights opus, Ten Freedom Summers, and a duet recording with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo entitled Ancestors. In the summer of 2013, in addition to touring Ten Freedom Summers at jazz festivals, he released Occupy the World, a collaborative recording with bassist John Lindberg and the big band Tumo. In 2013, Smith recorded a collaborative effort with George Lewis on trombone and John Zorn on sax; titled Sonic Rivers, the album was released by Tzadik in mid-2014, and featured original visual artwork from Smith. He followed this with another major new compositional work on Tum entitled Great Lakes Suites in mid-September, with a quartet that included Lindberg, Jack DeJohnette, and Henry Threadgill. Smith also played trumpet in an improvisational quartet with keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Joe Morris, and drummer Balazs Pandi. Their debut offering, Red Hill, was issued on Rare Noise later that month.
In 2015, Smith, in the midst of concerts for Ten Freedom Summers and Great Lakes Suites, recorded Celestial Weather, a duo album with Lindberg comprising three suites. It too was issued by Tum. In March 2016, Smith made his first appearance on ECM since 1993 in a duo collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer on A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke. In May, he received a Doris Duke Artist Award. His Ankhrasmation scores were exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and lauded with a 2016 Mohn Award. Nessuno, a collaborative release with Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, and John Tilbury was issued by ReR in July. August marked the centennial anniversary of the Organic Act that created the National Parks Service in the United States. Smith composed another long form work in celebration. Entitled America's National Parks, the work was performed by his Golden Quintet — the bandleader, pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, Pheeroan akLaff, and new addition, cellist Ashley Walters — and recorded in a single day. Cuneiform issued America's National Parks in its 90-plus-minute entirety in October 2016.