Read Phil Freeman's unedited transcript of his interview with the avant jazz giant
Phil Freeman: How did you first meet Anthony Braxton, and how did you start working with him?
Wadada Leo Smith: I met him in Chicago. I had been referred to
him by another fellow I met in the Army, I guess when they were
stationed in Korea or something. I had a phone number, and when I
got to Chicago I looked Braxton up and we started immediately
making a connection.
What was the common ground, do you think?
The fact that we were both in the AACM, and we were both looking at ways at that time of how to get our music out, because this was 1967 and very little had happened at that time. We had yet to do 3 Compositions of New Jazz; that was later in the year. It was a mutual situation where I understood things he was looking for and he checked out some of the things I was looking for.
I don’t think – I know I wasn’t thinking stylistically at all about any of these kinds of music. When I came to Chicago I had already composed a pretty good body of work and already begun to understand music without metrical progression or modulation. And I was never, ever working in a harmonic sphere where harmonic progression was important. And you look at Braxton, he’s working just the opposite, he was looking at how you make creative music with those connections. And I was not so much interested in that part of it as a way of making music. I always looked at how you make music without all those things everybody has inherited.
A lot of AACM work seems to utilize space and silence more than the aggressive free jazz that came from New York. Can you talk about that?
The piece with the vocals on it and also ‘The Bell,’ those two have the most space. I would say that space was a very important component, still is. Most people have kind of crowded their musical contribution into narrow spaces, but space is still a very important component of my music and a lot of the AACM people. And by space we don’t mean just horizontal space, we’re talking about vertical space and lateral space.
Could you explain that in a little more detail?
Okay, vertical space has to do with the relationship between low and high notes. Not necessarily anything to do with chords, but the intervallic range. And horizontal of course is about linear form, going from section A to section B or from one type of movement to another type of movement. But the lateral one has to do with how you make music that suggests you’re moving upward but also moving forward. That’s the lateral one. That’s a great illusion, just like those illusionists who make you think they’ve vanished into space. They don’t really vanish into space, but the way they’ve concocted the illusion they convince you they’ve vanished. Lateral space does the same thing. At the same time it gives a forward trajectory and an upward one, and if you’re coming from the other direction, a backward trajectory and a downward one. But the most important thing is not necessarily the direction but what happens inside that direction. Most of the music coming out of the evolution of the ’60s into what we have now – every performer or instrumentalist has a responsibility to contribute to that space in both positive and negative ways, and by negative I mean by applying not necessarily the activity of his music but by utilizing silence. Because up until the early ’60s, before the evolution came in, most people were looking at how you make a version of music that has something to do with playing and how you make your contribution within the context of a solo. That’s not a multi-dominant music, that’s music where one line is dominant and every other line is subservient to it or at least plays a role that doesn’t eclipse or intercede against that solo line. It’s important to talk about how one utilizes the form.
The AACM artists seem to have released a lot of solo horn albums – was that something you all discussed as important, and what do you see as the importance of solo releases?
To make solo music, the tradition goes way back. It doesn’t start with us. Before we did it, Monk did a lot of solo music, and James P. Johnson all those piano players. But with the advent of wind instruments…The incentive is this. It’s almost impossible to think about being a complete artist without having this capability of performing solo, in ensemble, and orchestral formations. But the real incentive is that you learn a lot about yourself when you play solo music. And it, by the way, it’s not absent of anything. Solo means just what it says, alone. And usually people say they’ll imagine what the bass would be doing while you’re soloing, and I’m quick to tell them that they were somewhere else. They were not at that performance. Because focusing on a solo requires the same kind of energy as focusing on an ensemble. It’s just that the ensemble gives you a multiplicity of things to look at, while a solo gives you this intense involvement that amounts to the same thing. I’ll give you an example. Five you listen to an ensemble and focus on one instrument from top to bottom of the piece, whether it’s three minutes or five minutes. It’s very difficult. One would find it difficult, because the solo presents the same kind of awareness that the ensemble asks you for.
It can be just as difficult to follow a solo performance as a group performance, but don’t the additional instruments provide a larger context for what the soloist is doing?
It does provide a larger context. But following a solo is just as difficult as following a single instrument within an ensemble. The effort that it requires – it requires a constant focus, whereas with an ensemble you can drift back and forth and go over here and go over there and hear the whole thing. So the solo requires more effort, or just as much effort.
Playing in an ensemble you have this unit [and] you’re only responsible for a portion of the music. Even if you are the ensemble leader or director, you’re still only responsible for a portion of the music as it is being performed. Whereas if you’re a solo, you’re responsible for all of it. So it’s a very different kind of responsility, the burden of putting it out is much larger than playing within an ensemble. There’s very few people that have put out solo records. There have been economically, but I’m talking about within the context of highly developed solo music. I’m not talking about the average guy who gets out of high school or college and feels that he wants to present a solo CD, because he don’t have the money to hire somebody. Playing solo has nothing to do with economical possibilities, it has to do with the material, and what the artists wants to reveal.
In the early ’70s, you started the Kabell label to release your own work – why did you make that move?
Well, essentially the main reason was to try and control the output that I was doing. The other reason was to mark the different types of research I was going through and the way that was being developed. I wanted to document those areas I was exploring at that time. The documentation was a very important part of it. It wasn’t to make money or something like that, although that’s not an impossibility, because money could be made on records at that time.
So the business aspect wasn’t really a big part of your thinking?
I don’t think it plays any part, because for example I could not compete with large record companies. You cannot compete with newspapers and magazines and things like that. But what the artist does is they are able to present their music and make evidence of their own existence on the planet, and that’s a much higher calling than the economic. To me that’s the most important part of it, that you leave a legacy of information whether the times are right for that information or individuals are interested in that information. Some day they will be. And we know that because we can look back through history and find many, many examples of this type of new information that was put down a long time ago and they didn’t have the courage to look at it. Whatever you do, it means something. The Prophet Muhammad said that if all of creation was going to end in a few seconds, if you have a chance, plant a tree.
The writer Isaac Asimov said if he knew he had only a few minutes to live, he would type faster.
Exactly. You don’t stop typing, you work and when the planet goes away you go away with it.
How did the Creative Construction Company arise out of your work with Braxton and Leroy Jenkins?
That group came together out of a concert that was being presented in New York. Braxton and Jenkins and myself had just come back from Europe and someone was trying to present us in New York. That group came together to play that event and wound up playing three events all together, two in New York and one in Boston. That was it. Some groups have the potential of lasting longer and others don’t. I can say this – rarely, if you look at history, do collectives last long. They last for a brief moment. There are of course exceptions like the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Art Ensemble, but there’s not a ton of them.
How did the New Dalta Akhri group form, and why were there relatively few records by the group?
We made Reflectativity and we made Song of
Humanity and we made Spirit Catcher and Divine
Love and what else. That’s probably the apex of that band. We
made a number of documents under the name New Dalta Akrhi or just
under the name Leo Smith, but it was the same concept. The concept
of that group was to begin to understand the rhythm music concept,
which later became part of the Ankhrasmation system. That band
quite frankly was the first band that began to introduce a clear
idea about systemic music coming from my point of view. It was
primarily involved in understanding how to use systems in making
music, and it had a pretty good format, but we rehearsed every
week, looked at a lot of music. Some of it was performed, some was
just rehearsed. One might say that New Dalta Akhri was the first
laboratory for what I was looking at for musical languages.
Do you think the loft jazz scene represented a major stylistic change from the avant-garde of the ’60s toward a more introspective music?
I believe there was a change, yeah. I think that if you look at the way the music had evolved, there was a drastic shift coming out of the post ’60s energy music to a much more systemic music, which is what I was looking for and was interested in. Systemic music meaning you had a reduction of energy and an implementation of more elements that were akin to concepts, systems and language. And if you look at the music I produced during that period – Divine Love, for example – the music on that record represented that shift away from the energy field of playing music to the kind of systemic, thematic ways in which you could manifest the creative process.
The biggest problem with the loft music is that it didn’t last long enough, and the people that started the loft scene and participated in the loft scene, they kind of just stopped, and I think they stopped because basically they got a little bit of press and they figured maybe we could do this thing the normal way that other people do it. They should have taken the loft scene as the foundation for building new kinds of institutions, where the music could be played. But that was not achieved. There’s a lot of failure of things that happened in the ’60s that could have made the conditions for music to day much different. But those failures – they didn’t build institutions. And institutions are the only things that really change the environment. If you go back to the 2008 election, if Obama had tried to do the same thing that his predecessors had done and run with the same presence, he would not have won. So he built a different way to run for office. He had a new approach to raising money, building coalitions, and the notion of how you present this idea, like incorporating young people into the process. That had never been done before. So he built a new political system that will become an institution, because he raised so much money. People will build off it. I think we could have done the same thing, and if we had formed any kind of coalition with other parts of the music it would have made a big difference.
You’re a teacher in addition to being a bandleader and many of your groups feature players much younger than yourself, so where is the line between teaching and bandleading, and how permeable is it?
Well, let me say it this way. Every ensemble leader has built a worldview which they take part of. And this worldview, this utopian environment in which you create and develop and present this music, is a perfect laboratory for any kind of new ideas. So the ensemble is the perfect forum for discovery. It’s utopian, it’s run generally by one person and one person’s view of what it is the ensemble should be engaged in, and people work in the context of that. Now in my ensembles, because of the languages and systems we use, every rehearsal is a process in which we try to establish new information and redefine old information – that is, information we already have. So it’s a perfect environment for that. And young people, they are the future no matter how you look at it. And some of us just happen to be older. It’s not really a big deal. But most of the bands I have put together involve people who have their own ensembles, which is one of the requirements to be in my ensemble. Because if you know how to run your own ensemble, you have a clear head about how ensembles function, what the role of individuals in an ensemble is, and how to relate to the music.
The Golden Quartet’s membership changed completely between the first and second albums, yet retained the name. How did the initial lineup come together, and why did it change?
That happens. Look at the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It was
called the Duke Ellington Orchestra all the time, and look how many
members changed. Lots of them. So that means that the Duke
Ellington Orchestra or the Golden Quartet is a concept. It’s an
idea about an ensemble, and that idea is fixed in some kind of ways
based on the conceptual or spiritual or economic or philosophical
views of the person that sets it up. so it can change. When I made
the Golden Quartet, when I made the Silver Orchestra, and now I
have Organic, I intended all these ensembles to run concurrently
with each other and if I need to make changes here or there, I make
What can you tell me about the recording of America, the duo album with Jack DeJohnette? There are relatively few trumpet-drums duo albums out there – how did it come about? Was it recorded in 1979 or more recently?
There’s Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, which is probably the most famous; there are not many, but I have three. I have one with Gunter “Baby” Sommer, a German guy, I have one with Adam Rudolph, which is hand drumming and percussion, and I have the one with Jack. It’s an unusual format, but musically it’s very rewarding. There’s a lot of space in it. There’s lots of things you can do. You can pull back, you can push forward, it’s a very beautiful format. If you have specific reasons for the ensembles and they take on an entirely different occasion. A possibility for really high achievement. That duet, America, looks at the political aspect of America but it goes back to 1964, and the idea of 1964 is that it was the first time that African-Americans were able to effectively achieve in any of the political parties. Before that we were not in the Democratic or Republican parties. But Fannie Lou Hamer and other courageous people went to Ohio and fought against Humphrey and all those other people. They were smart enough to use the press in their favor, which had never been done before by people speaking for inclusion. So America’s about that, which is a really fascinating story, that 1964 Democratic convention. Fannie Lou Hamer was a Mississippian.
It was originally supposed to be recorded for ECM years ago, right?
Somewhere around in there, but the project itself was only – it never came to fruition, so the music was never written for that ensemble. When this ensemble, when John Zorn and Tzadik decided to put this project out, I immediately started working on the music. Because this project was offered to ECM first, it was offered to Black Saint then, and none of those efforts bore fruit. Black Saint are adventurous, but I think the thing had something to do with economics.
Your new album has a lot of guitar players on the second disc, and obviously you’ve got the Yo Miles group with Henry Kaiser and your work with John Coxon and Spring Heel Jack – what about the combination of trumpet and electric guitar strikes you? Is it something that goes back to R&B, before you started playing jazz?
Most of the musicians I heard when I was younger were guitarists, but more than that, Organic originally had two keyboards, one guitar, one bass, one drummer and trumpet. But the year before that, we did three festivals in Europe, and after that was done I decided I was trying to get a different sound than what I had with the two keyboards. And the sound I ended up with was strings and percussion. So I got two basses, one electric and one acoustic but processed and amplified, the cello and four guitars. Right away that’s seven string instruments. The focus was, yes, what the guitar sounds like, but the ultimate focus was I wanted to create a string ensemble, or an ensemble where strings dominated, with just two outside instruments that have a different character, the drums and me. So I chose guitar players that are very unique and individual. Michael Gregory, there’s nobody that sounds like him. Brandon Ross, an entirely different way of playing guitar. Nels Cline, just fascinating the way he makes elements that sound rockish but aren’t really rockish, that sound jazz but aren’t really jazz. And I bring in my grandson Lamar on two pieces, which gives us a four-guitar format.
How did the Yo Miles group come together? During the 1970s you were doing something very different from that, so what about Miles Davis’s 1970s material interested you?
What made it interesting to me was the possibility of doing it in a way that it would be different. And by different I mean that we would try to create real music around the concepts and systems utilized by that Miles electric band. And when you do that you come up with something different than a project that’s trying to sound like the older band did and use the same principles. We used the same themes but with a much freer concept than Miles or anybody else used at that time. What’s interesting about the Yo Miles band is that it didn’t have too much of a performance life. It played maybe four times in its whole career and recorded three double records. Six records, three doubles. So we have more records than we actually had live performances. And I think that had great potential for performances, but could never get together for performances. We had several offers in Europe and a couple of places in America, but never played anywhere else but in San Francisco. That was the reason that band folded, was that it never played anywhere.
It seems like with each release there were more originals and fewer interpretations.
Basically the first record had only one original, and those
interludes that I did were all original music. And the second and
third were made in four days, at one of those recording live-in
places in the Bay Area, we made a CD a day basically. I went there
with a notebook full of music because I had just gotten through
recording with Thomas Mapfumo, and Kaiser was on that as well, and
I went directly from there, came home, took a short break and was
off on this other journey. So when I went up to record I carried a
notebook full of music. We exhausted the notebook. We exhausted the
What kind of connection do you feel with Miles Davis’s playing and style?
The thing you have to understand about Miles Davis is that his music, meaning his trumpet playing and also his compositions and the way he ran the ensemble was entirely different from what had taken place before on the planet. He brought more of a fresh awareness inside the music than most people did. And he also experimented in a different way than, say, Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor. His experimentation went the other way. He experimented with the addition of modern, newly discovered instruments like the Fender Rhodes and different kinds of piano things that were being invented at the time, that Herbie and those guys played. So his musical evolution was much larger than most people’s, and that’s kind of understated.
Speaking of experiments, tell me about Luminous Axis, the album you did with the laptops.
Basically it had laptops and I think three duets with Ikue Mori and I. But, see, my idea of electronic music is very different from most. For example, most of the electronic music out there that’s being produced and performed by people who build circuitry and patch these things through. I gave everyone scores that I call Ankhrasmation scores. Those connected computers, performers and me – instrumental performers like drums and trumpet – and that connection made it so that the ensemble, the practice of the computer artist was completely reversed, completely changed. It brought them into a visual contact with another object and that object had to be referenced and created in a certain way. It’s useful to find other areas of working in than you’re used to. So Luminous Axis was a very important project for me. It gave me the chance to make one composition, and that’s what it is, one composition that has I forget how many panels, something like 12 or 14 panels, where it was distributed throughout the ensemble in different ways. Sometimes you use the same score to create different music. So I recorded all this stuff and then in the post-production I did it exactly like a filmmaker would do. I reviewed all the material, I made a score for myself how I was gonna organize it and then I set about constructing the piece. It’s a piece that’s constructed by and large in post-production.
How would you compare that to working with Spring Heel Jack?
Essentially, working with Spring Heel Jack, they had stopped the bass/drum/guitar/computer music they had been doing, they had moved into connecting with improvisers. That’s how they connected with me.
Was it easy to communicate concepts, given the difference in your background and theirs?
I don’t know exactly how they saw it, but for me, I don’t believe that musicians can be made. Don Cherry took a lot of amateurs and made great music from it. Background, maybe it’s important in some contexts, but not always. Spring Heel Jack, the fist one and the second one we did, it’s all based around improvisation. Some of the material would be pre-taped, like there would be a soundtrack we’d listen to and play over, but it was all improvisation. There were no notes to learn or stuff like that. But the experience was good. I enjoyed working with Jon and Ashley. In fact, that whole scene of different British players, I enjoyed it.
Obviously you’ve had a very productive relationship with John Zorn and Tzadik – what can you say about that? How do you decide whether a project is suited to Tzadik or to Pi or to Cuneiform?
Right now I’m mostly working with Cuneiform, and the reason is there, it’s a much… I’m able to maintain the masters, to control and keep them, it’s leased to them, and with Pi, I haven’t worked with Pi in quite a few years. Tzadik has a 50 percent profit sharing relationship, which is a much different idea than control of the product. It’s kind of a quasi-partnership. This is a real interest for me, control of the product and leasing it. Cuneiform, these guys work very hard. They’re very aggressive in getting their products out there, and I like the way they work.
Would you say there’s a core philosophy behind your music – something that’s a common factor throughout your discography?
No matter what instrumentation you use, the whole layout of
one’s thinking musically involves the notion of a sense of bringing
out everything that’s in you. And in my philosophy, if you think of
the idea of non-metrics, the idea of breaking every possible notion
of sound and configuration into two ways of looking at sound. One
is as a long sound and a short sound, these are like the physical
characteristics of how I think about music. For example, if I have
a figure that has four short sounds in it and one long sound, I can
bracket that sound in a framework that says five sounds per
grouping. Now what that gives me is the ability, whether I’ve got
two people in the ensemble or ten, it gives me the possibility of
two different ways of expressing it or ten different ways, and
still having it come out right. So that’s one of the things, is to
break it down so it has two kinds of notions about duration or
articulation – it’s long or short sounds. And out of that
simplification, I can make stuff either longer or shorter or
faster. So that’s a nice beginning way of how to think about it.
Talk to me about “The Burning of Stones,” the track from Spirit Catcher with the harps.
The first thing that was fascinating for me about that was the notion of threes. If you look back at Spirit Catcher and Divine Love, they’re like months apart. And on Divine Love there’s a piece for three muted trumpets. Lester Bowie, Kenny Wheeler and I play on it. And this piece was written right around the same time, either just before or just after. But the three harp idea – I wanted to make it so that three harps gives me the possibility of having pulse in the rhythms, where whatever pitch they play, because you have to pluck the harps the same way as striking a drum, because there’s three of them I have three levels of rhythmic stuff crossing each other. And depending on the beginning and the end of the figure, I have this notion of contact in short and long relationships. Let’s say one harp has six notes in a figure, the next harp has three, the last harp has nine. And each one as they start the figure, depending how it lines up, one may be before the other one or may be going afterward. So I’ve got three crossing figures. And the sound was the other implication. What does the harp sound like? Not like a piano, not like a guitar, not like anything. So to have three of them, I’ve got this massive flow of figures crossing each other, to me that was a fascinating point. And when you look across the literature in Western music, you don’t find pieces for three harps. Neither do you find pieces for three trumpets, at least not at that time in the 1970s. There was a guy who had a trumpet piece for four trumpets but they were using a trumpet mute, not a Harmon mute. So when I looked across for any kind of similar reference for those kinds of instrumentation, I didn’t find them. And the other thing that makes both of these pieces so wonderful for me is that the trumpet parts for both of them are completely improvised. The three trumpets, they’re not free improvisation, but they’re improvised based around my Ankhrasmation language. The whole piece is based around my Ankhrasmation figures. And with the three-harp piece, there’s no line written for the trumpet. The trumpet simply plays its material over the tops of those bars and page that the harps are playing on. The three-harp piece, if you listen to [both takes] back to back you can hear how different they turn out to be. The harp music is the same, but the emphasis and how it flows has changed from the other piece and their attacks also change. I was surprised by that. Not in a bad way, in a good way. The harp parts are completely notated, so you would think they would come out roughly the same, at least close, but they come out with the attacks all different. We don’t count ’em one-two-ready-go. There’s no count-in. When I say non-metrical, that means that you don’t ever have to count either collectively as one count equals one, you count your own stuff in the context of the way you play it based on the figures and not based on a centralized count or a centralized beat. That’s because of the configuration, and you can feel quite different energies on there, if it’s faster or slower or the next version.
What do you see as the common threads linking the two discs of your new album?
I deliberately paired them in the way I did. “South Central L.A.” I put last on the quintet disc, and first on CD Two, with Organic. The reason I did that is I wanted to make it a complete forced issue regarding the listener. So that if I did have a serious listener that would sit down one day and listen to the first CD from beginning to end, and start immediately with the second CD, and listen to that to the end, if I had a serious listener who brought to that project the clear intent of finding out what I meant as a composer and performer, they would meet those two pieces back to back. Because when you listen to it one day, and then the next day, those two pieces – you know, it’s the same piece but it doesn’t make the impact it would if you listened back to back. And the same thing if you listen to the ensembles. The ensembles are very important. The quintet and then the septet/octet, because I fluctuate between seven and eight players. That makes the difference. Organic is essentially strings, and electric strings at that, and the other ensemble is more classic with strings, bass, wind instrument and drums, you see. So the impact would be swiftly felt if one did that. And when I did it, I was amazed how different the two ensembles sounded and how different the music felt from each one. For example, in Organic playing the same piece, it felt like it had so much depth in terms of the width of the sound. If you could stand the sound on its side it would go from the floor to the roof of the house. And all the space between the floor and the roof is filled in. That amazed me, and I thought that was wonderful. And when I listened to the quintet, if you placed it on its side, it would have that same kind of vertical depth but not be completely filled in. It has more vertical space in it, and things move across either singly, like one instrument makes its way through, or instruments pop up and down in there. Whereas with Organic, it’s just a grid that all the space is filled and every instrument is not competing but utilizing that grid as if they were the only instrument in the grid.
Yeah, there are moments that are pretty overwhelming.
It is overwhelming in a lot of ways, because when you’ve got
three or four guitars and they’re like Michael Gregory and Brandon
Ross and Nels Cline and Lamar Smith, when you’ve got them in there,
you say wow, and then you think you’ve been amazed, but then you’ve
got Skuli [Severinssen] and John Lindberg and Okkyung Lee. And then
you have to say ‘Wow, this string ensemble is nothing.’ And then
you think you’ve reached the peak of your realization, and you
still have left out the drumming. And that smashes you right up
against the wall with patterns that’s got space in between them,
looped together, making some kind of a notion about patterns but
not straight-out patterns. So it does have an overwhelming effect,
for me as well.
How would you describe your approach to rhythm, generally?
The major question is, since the recording ‘The Bell,’ I discovered that rhythm could be organized as proportional and not metrical. And what I found out, this goes back to that thing about long and short, I found that if I could group a set of figures into an idea of long and short, and I had six sets of them which turned out to be twelve different kinds of rhythms, and then I organized a relationship between each set, between a single set and between each of a set, that I had stepped on something that would be profoundly useful. ‘The Bell’ was composed on a Saturday morning at my house in Chicago, and later that day at the AACM building where we would often meet and perform and discuss, I had the opportunity of putting it into practice to see how it worked. And I didn’t know at the time they were rhythm units or that it would have such an impact on my music, I simply knew that I was struggling hard to find a way how to verbally contextualize what I was trying to do in these figures. And the rhythm units gave me that idea. So this long and short – let’s say each set has a long-short relationship out of all six of them. And the first one, the first figure in there which is the white one with the stem coming from the left side and the beam going over the bar to the right, that one is the long relationship, and you see that connection in all six of the sets. And the second part of the rhythm unit is the black note head with the stem coming up from the left, beam moving across to the right. That’s also in every set but with some other graphic figure that precedes them, same with the white one, so that each set looks the same but has [something] on them. The long note, whenever it’s performed in an actual piece of music, you always hear silence between. And that silence in between equals the relative value of how long that note was before. If it was two beats, you can give something like two beats of silence. You’re not dealing with beats, but I use that as a way of explanation. And then the second one is the same thing, but the silence is shorter. So each unit has an a and a b part to it. So what you end up with is a long unit sounding, a silence unit in between, another long unit sounding that’s roughly half what the first unit was, and then a space of silence equivalent to that half. So what you end up articulating physically is the a and b part of the unit, and the other part is imaginary, the long silence and the short silence. Four components being used in each unit. Two silent as extra figures. So that was the key. And then the second key is the performers never ever have to memorize what the noise-silence relationship is in any given rhythm unit, or remember which figure was the longest when they played it last. Because whenever you come to a rhythm unit figure in that piece of music I composed, its relationship is always long and short. So that means you can keep the creative impulse in you while playing without breaking your creative strand to figure out was the last one long or short. That’s not the issue. If a new unit comes up and there’s two of them or three of them together, or just one more new one, you’re gonna play it with the idea that it’s either long or short.
I was on a press conference with Max Roach maybe 33-35 years ago in Italy, and a couple of other guys like Reggie Workman was on there, and I was being asked about this rhythm units concept and Ankhrasmation and I talked about it, and Max Roach got excited about it when I showed him what the rhythm units looked like. At that time they looked like eighth notes, regular Western eighth notes, but when I began to teach it I came into too much conflict with people trying to play them as regular eighth notes, so I completely changed them. I changed them to look like they were a white note head with a stem coming from the left side, or a black note head with the stem coming from the left side and the beam going toward the right. So Max Roach got really excited and said ‘Wow, this is exactly the way you make a new system by starting with eighth notes.’ And he was referring to the way bebop was constructed. And I had often thought of bebop as being eighth-note music. And if you look at a lot of the scores coming out of that genre, or if you look at Anthony Braxton’s quartets that had the swing idiom, you see the same thing about this notion of bebop being an eighth-note music. So he said I was on the right trail, which excited me, that someone like Max Roach who was a rhythm master, would think that my Ankhrasmation rhythm music idea was the right direction.
You don’t seem to think much about conventional harmony – you seem to achieve harmonic effects more through instrumentation. Is that right?
I don’t deal with harmony. I deal with sound. A group of notes that are stacked on top of each other, I call them vertical sounds. I rarely use the notion of chords, because I associate chords with harmony. So I call ’em vertical stacks and the logical reason for the definition comes out of Roscoe Mitchell’s ideas about sound. That was a message to the entire creative music community. It said that now that we had reached a stage past Ornette and Albert and Don Ayler and those fantastic guys, Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor, we had now entered into an area of sound. And that record, Sound, if anybody listens to it you can see that there’s a real beautiful melody that’s voiced in several orchestrations of the instruments that precedes sound, but once they reach the space for improvisation, the sound is manipulated, the artist is asked to manipulate the sound that’s inherent within the instrument. And varying levels of success are achieved, but the truth is it generated for me specifically, because I consider myself a deep and serious listener, I saw that Sound really gave us a pure identity as a community to talk about what we were doing and to make a distinction from noise. In Sound you still maintain the possibility to have control over the incidence of non-related pitches that you’re dealing with, and you can shape and bend them any kind of way. And if you look at the tradition of jazz or creative music, it’s always been an expression of the uniqueness of sound. Every artist according to Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, the moment they strike the first sound, even if you can’t see that person, you can identify who that person is by the way they sound. So I started thinking not about harmonics after running across that piece of Mitchell’s and being somewhat associated with them. I associated that idea of sound as a good way in which we could tell what I was trying to do and all the guys in the AACM. Most of them were not involved just in harmony, though some of them were harmonically oriented. Because you could not really – I don’t believe you could place all those guys in the narrow frame we call harmony. And even guys who use a harmonic notions, like Henry Threadgill, who has his intervallic relationships, it’s entirely different than the practice of harmony, or Braxton, who has his cell unit concept, it’s entirely different than harmony. Or my Ankhrasmation concept. Those are three ideas right there if you place in any kind of conference anywhere in the world will open up a tunnel of light that’s almost to the point of blindness for people who think about how you make art with sound.