Singular jazz duo comes to Amherst College: PVJS concert will showcase renowned improvisational trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-08-2023 6:38 PM

Over the years, Glenn Siegel has worked with a huge number of jazz musicians and composers, both as the founder of the former Magic Triangle concert series at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and with his Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares program.

But Siegel, the Northampton-based jazz promoter, has a special regard for two of the artists who will play tonight (Friday, March 10) in a concert for which PVJS has partnered with the Amherst College Music Department.

The show, at the college’s Buckley Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m., pairs pianist Angelica Sanchez with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in music and a trailblazer in free improvisation who created a symbolic, image-based language, Ankhrasmation, for musicians and other performers.

Smith, who’s 81, has also racked up many awards and accolades over the years from different sources, including DownBeat Magazine, which has voted him variously composer, jazz musician and trumpeter of the year.

And in May, Siegel notes, Smith will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters during its annual Ceremonial.

The Mississippi native “is one of the most revered, decorated musicians of our time,” Siegel said in an email. “He is a serious composer in addition to having a singular sound and approach on his instrument ... It is a great honor to present him to Valley audiences.”

But that’s not to shortchange Sanchez, he added, who teaches at Bard College and whose music has been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and applauded by the New York Times and other reviewers.

“Angelica is one of the busiest, most respected pianists in jazz,” said Siegel, who also calls her “a fearless improviser and a talented composer.”

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The Times puts it like this: “In her piano playing as well as her compositions, Angelica Sanchez seeks out the lyrical heartbeat within any avant-garde storm.”

Not only that: Siegel says Sanchez, along with guitarist Omar Tamez, played the very first PVJS concert, back in 2012, the year he started the member-based concert series, in which people pay an annual fee — a “share” — up front to help finance the music.

Siegel says he’s brought Sanchez and Smith separately to the Valley on other occasions over the years; this is the first time they’ll be playing together in the area, though the two have worked as a duo elsewhere.

“They are both masters of their instruments,” he said.

They released an album, “Twine Forest,” in 2013 that featured eight compositions by Sanchez that Smith used as a springboard for riffing on his trumpet. One reviewer called the record “a superb conversation and improvisational communion ... Smith’s tone is like silver, glinting off Sanchez’s chords and lines, glowing in resonance with the strings of the piano.”

Smith actually began his career playing drums and French horn before settling on trumpet, and in the 1960s he played in a number of R&B groups before moving into jazz. One influence was Miles Davis, and in the late 1980s Smith and guitarist Henry Kaiser recorded “Yo, Miles!” a tribute to Davis’ “electric period” of the early 1970s.

Today he’s a multi-instrumentalist with a background in ethnomusicology and music education, and he’s a longtime member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians , a nonprofit group that supports jazz musicians, avant-garde jazz and music education.

His website offers this: “Smith defines his music as ‘Creative Music,’ and his diverse discography reveals a recorded history of music centered in the idea of spiritual harmony and the unification of social and cultural issues of his world.”

Siegel notes that Smith’s Ankhrasmation music notation scores have been exhibited in a number of major American museums, while some of his compositions have been performed by music ensembles around the world.

Tickets for the Amherst College show are $15 and can be purchased at jazzshares.org or at the door.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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