The first time that Wadada Leo Smith heard Ed Blackwell's drumming, he was drawn to the sound. Smith joined the Army in 1963, where he played trumpet in military bands. In the barracks one night, he was listening to his brand-new copy of Miles Davis' latest album, Seven Steps to Heaven, when a competing soundtrack arose from another bunk.
"The guy that was sleeping across from my bunk had bought This Is Our Music," Smith said, the 1961 release by the revolutionary Ornette Coleman Quartet featuring Blackwell on drums. "He was playing This Is Our Music loud, and I was playing Seven Steps to Heaven loud, and both of us drifted towards each other's LPs. I liked the Miles Davis, but he didn't like the Ornette, so we made a trade. What they were doing was closer to what I was thinking about as a musical aesthetic."
By the end of that decade, Smith was a leading figure in a musical revolution of his own. After leaving the Army, the trumpeter had moved to Chicago and become a charter member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the ground-breaking artists' collective that is the subject of the Institute of Contemporary Art's current exhibition "The Freedom Principle," which closes this weekend. Smith will perform Saturday at the institute with his longtime collaborator drummer Pheeroan akLaff, revisiting the music of The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer, an album that Smith recorded in 1986 with Blackwell.
The members of the AACM relocated to Paris in 1969, where Smith crossed paths with Blackwell for the first time. Smith was visiting Coleman, at the saxophonist's hotel one day when Blackwell entered, and Smith ended up accompanying the drummer to lunch. "I didn't speak any French," Smith said with a chuckle, "so Blackwell had to order my lunch. From that moment on, I knew that this guy was beautiful. He was fatherly and very protective in regards to me."
In October 1986, Smith and Blackwell were both living in Connecticut when the trumpeter was invited to perform at Brandeis University and asked Blackwell to accompany him. With almost no rehearsal, the duo performed the lively, wide-ranging, hour-long set that became The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer. As Smith recalls of that evening, "We hit the music, and I would say it was an expected joy with an extraordinary texture. The way that Ed plays, he actually orchestrates the drums."
It took nearly 25 years for that music to be heard again, when Smith finally got the album mixed to his liking and released it on his own Kabell label in 2010. He and Blackwell had only performed once more before the drummer's death in 1992, with less-happy results. "That story's kind of tragic," Smith says. "I had hired someone to drive Ed up to Boston, and the damn car broke down. So Ed got to Boston an hour after the concert should have started, and he was very sick. We only played two pieces."
Saturday afternoon's performance will be the first time in more than 30 years that Smith will perform The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer live, and for the occasion, he called on akLaff. The two have been working together for more than 40 years, since akLaff approached the trumpeter after a performance in New Haven. The drummer is a member of several of Smith's ensembles, including the trio Mbira, with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen; the large ensemble for Smith's 2012 magnum opus, "Ten Freedom Summers"; and the longstanding Golden Quintet, which recorded Smith's latest suite, "America's National Parks." Like much of Smith's work, The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer draws its inspiration from nature -- in this case, both the coffee-rich mountain range in Jamaica and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia.
"This will be our maiden voyage," Smith says of the concert. "My expectation is that it will be quite unique, because Pheeroan will offer something that's uniquely his as a tribute to Ed. Blackwell is important, so I'm excited that we'll have a new manifestation of this project."