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 will be 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. He also received the Hammer Museum's 2016 Mohn Award for Career Achievement "honoring brilliance and resilience" after his Ankhrasmation scores were featured in an exhibition at the museum. The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago presented the first comprehensive exhibition of these scores in 2015. In March 2016 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."