Wadada Leo Smith  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith (born 18 December 1941) is a trumpeter and composer working primarily in the fields of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation.



Smith was born in Leland, Mississippi. He started out playing drums, mellophone, and French horn before he settled on the trumpet. He played in various R&B groups and by 1967 became a member of the AACM and co-founded the Creative Construction Company, a trio with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton. In 1971, Smith formed his own label, Kabell. He also formed another band, the New Dalta Ahkri, with members including Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis and Oliver Lake.

In the 1970s, Smith studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. He played again with Anthony Braxton as well as recording with Derek Bailey's Company. In the mid-1980s, Smith became Rastafarian and began using the name Wadada. In 1993, he began teaching at Cal Arts, a position he currently holds. In addition to trumpet and flugelhorn, Smith plays several world music instruments, including the koto, kalimba, and atenteben (Ghanaian bamboo flute). He has also taught courses in instrument making. His compositions often use a graphic notation system he calls "Ankhrasmation", which he developed in 1970.

In 1998, Smith and guitarist Henry Kaiser released Yo, Miles!, a tribute to Miles Davis's lesser-known 1970s electric period. On this album, Smith, Kaiser and a large cast of musicians recorded cover versions and original compositions inspired by Miles's electric music. The follow-ups Sky Garden (released by Cuneiform in 2004) and Upriver (released in 2005) were recorded with a different cast of musicians. Both line-ups featured Michael Manring on bass.

Smith's Golden Quartet (with whom he has released two albums) features Jack DeJohnette on drums, Anthony Davis on keyboards, and Malachi Favors on bass. During the 2000s, Smith recorded albums for John Zorn's Tzadik, as well as Pi Recordings. In 2008, he and his Golden Quartet released a DVD entitled Freedom Now.


As leader

  • 1972: Creative Music - 1 (Kabell)
  • 1974: Reflectativity (Kabell)
  • 1976: Song of Humanity (Kabell)
  • 1978: Divine Love (ECM)
  • 1978: Mass on the World (Moers)
  • 1979: Budding of a Rose (Moers)
  • 1980: Go in Numbers (Black Saint)
  • 1980: Spirit Catcher (Nessa)
  • 1981: Akhreanvention (Kabell)
  • 1982: Human Rights (Kabell)
  • 1983: Procession of the Great Ancestry (Nessa)
  • 1983: Rastafari (Boxholder)
  • 1985: If You Want the Kernels, You Have to Break the Shells (FMP)
  • 1995: Kulture Jazz (ECM)
  • 1996: Tao-Njia (Tzadik)
  • 1997: Golden Hearts Remembrance (Chapchap)
  • 1997: Prataksis (Ninewinds)
  • 1998: Condor, Autumn Wind (Wobbly Rail)
  • 1999: Light Upon Light (Tzadik)
  • 2000: Reflectativity (Tzadik)
  • 2000: Golden Quartet (Tzadik)
  • 2001: Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik)
  • 2002: The Year of the Elephant (Pi)
  • 2002: Luminous Axis (Tzadik)
  • 2003: Organic Resonance (Pi)
  • 2004: Lake Biwa (Tzadik)
  • 2004: Saturn, Conjunct the Grand Canyon in a Sweet Embrace (Pi)
  • 2005: Snakish (Leo)
  • 2006: Compassion (Meta/Kabell)
  • 2007: Wisdom in Time (Intakt)
  • 2008: Tabligh (Cuniform)
  • 2009: America (Tzadik)
  • 2009: Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform)
  • 2010: The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer with Ed Blackwell (Kabell)
  • 2011: Heart's Reflections (Cuniform)
  • 2012: Ten Freedom Summers (Cuniform)

As sideman

With Muhal Richard Abrams

With Marion Brown

With Anthony Braxton

With Henry Kaiser

  • Yo, Miles! (Shanachie, 1998)
  • Sky Garden (Cuneiform, 2004)
  • Upriver (Cuneiform, 2004)

With Frank Lowe

With Matthew Shipp

  • Matthew Shipp's New Orbit (Thirsty Ear, 2001)

With Spring Heel Jack

  • The Sweetness of the Water (Thirsty Ear, 2004)

With John Zorn

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