The Art of Experimentation: Wadada Leo Smith at The Stone

Wadada Leo Smith walked out onto the fluorescent-lit stage with a stack of papers. He began to play the trumpet, muted, eyes closed. The melodies came in spurts – one burst of hyperactivity, pause, another. It was as if the phrase ideas were sporadically flying into his head. There are an infinite number of sounds and pitches the trumpet alone can make – and Smith wanted to experiment with them all.

He gradually removed the mute, and the sound reverberated across the room as he trilled, blew, screeched, screamed, sang, and made every sound imaginable and more through the bell of his trumpet. During a pause, he stepped over to the piano and began to play a modal chord progression, painting a rainbow of colors through tone changes. Harmonious pitches ringing together washed over the audience in gentle waves, in stark contrast to the frenetic energy of the trumpet improvisations that happened just moments ago. Through these musical vignettes, he was exploring a set of works by Thelonious Monk – both playing Monk’s melodies and expanding them into new territories.

The Stone at the New School, founded and led by experimental saxophonist and composer John Zorn, presents avant-garde sounds nearly every night. It prides itself on putting the investigation of sound and ideas ahead of any specific aesthetic position. Concerts are cash-only, monitored by a volunteer with a clipboard at a table in the back of the room, and photos and videos are forbidden. Of course, this all runs the risk of being an uninviting, entrenched musical enclave. Yet the feeling of going to The Stone is the familiar feeling of being engrossed in a late-night conversation by moonlight. This evening was no different: eye-opening, not aloof.

As the concert progressed, it was clear that Monk’s ideas and styles were a starting point for something much larger, a rumination on the history of jazz. Throughout the performance, Smith displayed two movements within the art of jazz and experimentation: the first being technical prowess and the exploration of the “pure sound” a trumpet can make, the second being tone painting and the exploration of modal patterns. Monk was a pioneer in the field of composed jazz music, writing numerous pieces that have become standards, like the well-known “‘Round Midnight.” As a pianist, he was known for his unique, percussive voice within the virtuosic field of bebop. Smith mimicked some of these foundational aspects of Monk’s works in his performance: riffing off of Monk’s composed works in a percussive style, only on trumpet instead.

But the music was just the beginning of the journey taken in the room that night – Smith offered the audience much more than an opportunity to watch a master of his craft in action. Discovery was central to the concert experience: he encouraged the audience to envelop themselves in the ethos of experimentation, to enter a space in which an open mind and the acceptance of uncertainty were the forefront of the experience.

Near the end of the evening, Smith put down his trumpet, faced the audience, and began to tell a metaphorical story. “I never met Monk,” he whispered, “I only knew him through the stage of inspiration.” He set the scene: Monk was playing piano underwater. Everyone wanted to understand what he was doing. Some dove in and discovered the soundscapes he was creating beneath the sea, and began to create their own new soundscapes, too. “Once you discover it, you don’t have to discover it again,” Smith advised. The story encouraged experimentation: the adventure doesn’t just end with understanding Monk’s work and legacy. That is simply the beginning – we must always seek to discover something new.

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