UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 08 Summer 18 Library
Wadada Leo Smith and the Golden Quintet (Photo: James Taylor)
Arts Administration & Music

The Impulse Festival with Wadada Leo Smith

Last January when legendary jazz trumpeter, composer, and Pulitzer Prize nominee Wadada Leo Smith came to Charlottesville for an artist residency and to headline the inaugural Impulse Festival of Improvisation, he was fresh off a nearly unprecedented trifecta. Smith, a major force in contemporary jazz for more than 40 years, had recently been named Downbeat Magazine’s 2017 Artist of the Year. His suite, America’s National Parks, had been named Downbeat’s Album of the Year, and Smith himself had been named the magazine’s Trumpet Player of the Year. The accolades only raised the excitement for what turned into an extraordinary few days of music making and discovery during which Smith and his band, Wadada Leo Smith and the Golden Quintet, performed two unforgettable concerts and participated in workshops, lectures, and demonstrations that explored a vast range of inspiration and improvisation. Smith’s Golden Quintet features pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, cellist Ashley Waters, drummer Pheeroan Ak Laff and collaborating video artist Jesse Gilbert. 

Among the highlights of the experience was the spectacular festival finale concert performance of America’s National Parks, in which three layers of imagery, live-mixed by video artist Gilbert, accompanied Smith’s remarkable music. He combined pictures of National Parks with real-time shots of the concert as it was performed with painterly effects generated by a digital algorithm that creates images using a live music feed from the soundboard. The effect, when combined with music, created an extraordinary multi-sensory creative journey that provided the perfect exclamation point on a four-day celebration of unbridled spontaneous creativity. The performance was only the second time the piece had been presented live. The inspiration for the Impulse Festival of Improvisation, according to organizer Greg Howard, renowned Chapman Stick player of the UVA Performance Faculty, was to bring together a diverse array of musicians to highlight how integral improvisation is to the way we experience and enjoy music, and how it can be a launching pad for completely new forms of expression. “People tend to think musical improvisation requires some kind of special talent,” Howard said, “but as humans we are all improvisers. We meet the unexpected head on, we react as best we can, because we must! It’s no different with music. When a player is really improvising, they are composing in the moment. It’s unpredictable, and that can make it exciting for the performer and the audience. It’s a very pure form of expression.” The Wadada Leo Smith artist residency and the Impulse Festival were made possible in part by a grant from the UVA Arts Council. Additional support was provided by the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Collective Response: Moving Forward Committee, the Office of the Provost & Vice Provost for the Arts, Officer of the Vice President and Chief Officer of Diversity and Equity, President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, University Programs Council, and WTJU Radio. Generous support was provided by The Acquavella Family, Charlottesville Jazz Society, Gassmann Fund for Innovation in Music, Hampton Inn and Suites, and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

Wadada Leo Smith and the Golden Quintet
(Photo: James Taylor)

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Kate Orff (College '93), a Macarthur Fellow