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Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith reprise their epic one-off live pairing at Winter Jazzfest

Written by
Liz Pelly

In San Francisco in the early 2000s, Deerhoof singer-bassist Satomi Matsuzaki and drummer Greg Saunier watched the poet Kazuko Shiraishi perform to a small crowd in a tiny room. On that night, Shiraishi read with no microphone but was joined by a trumpeter, one who had “the most exquisite sense of space imaginable,” says Saunier. “It was impossible not to imagine an empty canvas.… We were totally blown away.”

RECOMMENDED: A full guide to Winter Jazzfest

As it turns out, that trumpeter was the legendary AACM musician and composer Wadada Leo Smith, an avant-garde jazz vet who has been making music since the ’60s. After the show, Matsuzaki and Saunier introduced themselves and were struck by Smith’s kindness. He gave them a copy of his latest album.

Years later, when the experimental rock quartet was planning a 2009 show at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, they contacted Smith about playing together. He agreed. “I couldn’t believe it,” Saunier recalls. A week before the show, Saunier received an email from Smith saying, “Send me some of your tunes, so I know what to play.” Unbeknownst to Deerhoof, Smith didn’t want to open: He wanted to play with them. 

With no rehearsals beforehand, the band calls that set one of the “great thrills” of its 23 years together. “There was no wasted note, no wasted phrase, no wasted gesture,” says Saunier of Smith’s masterful playing. “It completely made us feel like we were playing music we’d never heard before.… Everything was so utterly reframed and recast by what he was adding,” he continues. “He doesn’t compete or try to cover anybody up. It’s just that the way he plays is so strong. You can’t ignore it. For that second that he’s playing, [everything else] fades into the background and becomes his support. It’s a bit of a magic trick. It’s a mind-reading  ability.”

Smith loved it too. “That was very exciting,” he remembers, when we spoke on the phone a few days after his 74th birthday. “It was a young audience. Everyone was standing. It was completely packed.”

For Deerhoof, a band that’s synonymous with shape-shifting, proggy experimental rock, the pairing was yet another transformation in a career of experimentation. The Los Angeles gig became a favorite memory that the group would tell their friends about—“one for the record books,” says Saunier. One pal who happened to hear the tale was Adam Schatz, coproducer of NYC’s Winter Jazzfest. And so, the storied once-in-a-lifetime collaboration will occur once more, as the artists come together to close this year’s festival with a night of improvisation featuring both Deerhoof and Smith’s songs.  

Reflecting on the artists’ compatibility as collaborators, Smith says, “The thing that’s most important to me is an artist’s ability to be creative. It doesn’t matter to me whether you play prison songs or church songs—if in fact there is a creative impulse inside of it, then to me that’s as important as a Beethoven string quartet. The connection is creativity.”

Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith play Le Poisson Rouge Wednesday, January 17 at 8pm ( $25–$30.

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