Huck Finn Meets Japanese Dancers and a Jazz Quartet

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Wadada Leo Smith and Oguri in "Notaway: A Quest for Freedom." Photo by Roger Burns.

March begins on Friday. Cue another round of the popular block party in Venice called First Fridays. This month, besides mingling in a stylish crowd and eating from a flurry of food trucks or high-end restuarants, jazz and dance fans may want to walk half a block east of Abbot Kinney Boulevard. At the solar-powered Electric Lodge, longtime collaborators dancer/choreographer Oguri and composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith present the premiere of Notaway: Quest for Freedom.

Joining the duo for the weekend run are Japanese choreographer Yasunari Tamai and Smith’s Golden Quartet, featuring Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass and Pheeroan akLaff on drums. Notaway: Quest for Freedom is part of the Flower of the Season 2013 series, produced by Arcane Collective and Body Weather Laboratory (BWL), a forum Oguri uses to teach contemporary movement known as Butoh, which utilizes the study of nature as source material for dance. BWL planted roots at Electric Lodge in 1997 and has continued to host workshops and productions there.

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo by Scott Groller. Oguri. Photo by Arturo Patten.

The Notaway cast has been consumed with rehearsals since Saturday. That was the first day the Japanese dancers heard Smith’s compositions.

“It was a long, two-hour rehearsal,” says Smith, referring to Saturday’s unveiling of sound. “Oguri and Tamai listened during the whole demonstration. We went through both [new] pieces. [Oguri] had also selected two pieces I had done earlier. We went through those. Basically, he didn’t know the music until [Saturday]. I didn’t know what the dancers would do until [Saturday]. Now, he has an idea about how the music flows, some notion about how to perform it. The same with me. [Monday] we have rehearsal, and the next day, and we should be great.”

Oguri and Smith have been working together for more than 15 years. Smith remembers their first collaboration involving calligraphy and 100 ceramic bowls with microphones in them. “They gave off nice sounds,” Smith recalls, adding that he used the bowl that he received as a gift to drink tea.

Usually when the two masters of their own crafts join forces, the process starts with a phone call. “I’ll call him about a special project, or he’ll call me, and we talk about it for a while,” says Smith, whose civil rights opus Ten Freedom Summers was introduced at REDCAT in 2011. “Usually, I play him the music when it’s my project, or he tells me what the project is about, and I get some ideas.” Their creative back-and-forth is brief, which is one of the main reasons their bond remains strong.

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo by Scott Groller.

“When we talk, we don’t talk a lot about details,” Smith says. “We talk about feelings, maybe thematic ideas. The total amount of time in all the conversations put together could be no more than 45 minutes. But never how to do it, and never how it’s going to be. That’s the kind of non-discussive, non-fixing-up approach that I like very much in his authentic character. We trust each other enough to know that intuitively we’re going to feel things that we could not possibly discuss, and that those feelings are going to generate musical and dance properties that could not possibly have come across if we had set out to narrate it in absolute detail.”

For Notaway, Oguri commissioned Smith to do the music. “He told me it was about the question of freedom,” says Smith. “He had selected me to do this score because he was looking at Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, centered in the South. I am from Mississippi. I was the right guy to pick for this. So, I wrote two pieces, “˜The Freedom River Lovers: A Journey for Human Rights’ and “˜Notaway: The Dream Unfolds.’”

Oguri in "Caddy! Caddy! Caddy!" at REDCAT. Photo by Steven A. Gunther.

Oguri, who read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Japanese, uses the great American novel as a springboard for his new work. In a statement released by the production company, Oguri says “I see [Huck and Jim’s] quest for freedom as the essence of the book. Huck himself is an intensely physical being, and he improvises his way out of the problems that he and Jim encounter. As a dancer I connect with these aspects of his character. When Huck says that he will risk going to hell to free Jim, I admire Huck for his ability to make crucial decisions in the moment. He understands that we have no choice in life but to escape slavery and obtain freedom.”

While working on the score for Notaway, Smith also pondered the idea of freedom, which led to thoughts of rivers. “A river offers the opportunity of a variety of foods, and plant life, the notion of scenery and travel. That’s the kind of freedom that everyone can experience. The way in which the river flows, it takes everything it comes in contact with without distortion. If it hits a bend, it turns a bend. If it hits a roadblock, it turns on itself and goes back the other way. That’s the kind of unconditional response to freedom of movement, freedom of education, freedom of transportation, freedom of knowledge and light.”

Freedom is a central theme not only in the music but also in the movement. “Everybody is going to improvise,” says Smith, “the ensemble and the dancers. The whole collage of these artists is going to present an object that could be considered improvised completely, or composed completely, or any kind of dimension in between those two extremes.

“In the performance, the context of improvisation and composition form is completely, totally balanced,” Smith adds, “so that in many places people won’t know there is improvisation, and in fact, there will be improvisation. And in some areas, there will be improvisation based around some notion of structure, and people would think that’s probably written, and in fact, it would also be improvised. And then there’ll be sections of complete collective improvisation, and people will wonder if it’s improvised or not improvised or composed or not composed. There will be a large portion of improvised music and composed music, but balanced in a way you cannot put your finger on it, in the same way people often [say that] you can’t step in the river in the same spot.”

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo by Steven A. Gunther.

Smith refers to “that whole idea about improvisation being freedom in action, freedom in this sense that the practice elevates the human being to the level of higher morality, high level of creativity, ultimate sense of sincerity, and the notion of love. I know those kinds of connections with freedom contradict the idea of the freedom of choice and these kinds of things like that. Those are actually social components that we misunderstand but don’t really put them in real perspective. I think pure, true love is one of the highest states of freedom. Just like creativity is one of the highest states of freedom, or sincerity.”

As creative with his words as he is with his notes, Smith says artists such as James Baldwin, Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor inspire him. So do ideas, and the simplest phenomena. “The notion of what inspires me comes from music,” says Smith, “but also from the fact that I enjoy waking up in the morning and watching the sunrise.”

Notaway: Quest For Freedom, Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice. Opens  Friday. Fri 8 pm, Sat 5 pm and 8 pm. Sun 3 pm. Tickets: $17-$25. 310-823-0710.

Jessica Koslow

Jessica Koslow