CD Review: Wadada Leo Smith - Ten Freedom Summers



Wadada Leo Smith - Ten Freedom Summers
(Cuneiform Records Rune 350/351/352/353. CD review by Chris Parker)


‘One of my life’s defining works’ is how trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith describes this four-hour-twenty-minute project, a musical reaction to ten years of the American civil rights movement, from the celebrated court case Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Nineteen pieces, referencing everyone from Dred Scott (whose 1857 case concluded with the ruling that slaves and their descendants were not citizens of the US and therefore not protected by the country’s Constitution) through Rosa Parks (of Montgomery bus boycott fame), to Martin Luther King, Jr., are here collected on four CDs of music recorded in Los Angeles, November 2011.

Inspired by Duke Ellington’s ‘Sacred Concerts’, Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now!, Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ and freedom music from further afield (chiefly that of Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo), but also by August Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle (each part of which deals with a decade of US twentieth-century life), Smith has produced a multi-hued, detailed and nuanced artistic response to what he refers to as ‘the psychological transformation that America achieved’ in the struggle for African-Americans’ freedom. Ten Freedom Summers, though, is not strictly speaking a suite; instead, Smith states, ‘each composition … is complete and stands on its own’.

Two groups of musicians, Smith’s own Golden Quintet/Quartet and the Southwest Chamber Music nonet under conductor Jeff von der Schmidt, alternate and occasionally blend in performances of richly textured, vibrant music which, as the project’s pianist Anthony Davis claims, contains ‘a deep code … that never fails to unlock new revelations for the performer … [it] always makes us thinking musicians’.

Drawing as much on contemporary classical music as on free (and composed) jazz, Smith imbues his epic opus with a remarkable range of moods, inspired by everything from the sombre solemnity of John F. Kennedy’s funeral motorcade and the defiant stridency of Emmett Till to the drama of the Freedom Riders, the quiet, steadfast dignity of Rosa Parks and the stirring eloquence of Martin Luther King.

Smith himself, his trumpet by turns searing and passionate, tender and ruminative, is the most immediately striking solo voice, but pianist Davis, bassist John Lindberg and the two drummers Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra are equally resourceful and committed throughout, Davis in particular demonstrating just how adaptable and subtle the vocabulary of free jazz can be when deployed by a composer as skilful as Smith.

The nonet music, too, setting as it does flute and clarinet against harp, strings and percussion, is just as absorbingly multi-textured and dynamic as the more overtly ‘jazz’-based material, and the work as a whole triumphantly vindicates its composer’s aim to ‘celebrate some of the major events that shaped the spirit of resistance, and to celebrate in what way the United States was changed by this movement’.

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