Review: Wadada Leo Smith - Ten Freedom Summers first night at Café Oto (LJF 2013)

Wadada Leo Smith at Café Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2013. All Rights Reserved

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers
(Café Oto, 21 November 2013 - first night of the three. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

The opening night of the 3-night European première of Wadada Leo Smith's magnum opus, ‘Ten Freedom Summers’, brought out sparkling performances from Wadada's superb Golden Quartet and the talented young British Ligeti String Quartet.

The vitality of this magnificent endeavour, as it unfolded in the intimate confines of Café Oto, was a perfect complement to the absorbing 4-CD set of the core 19 compositions (recorded in 2011 for Cuneiform Records), devoted to Wadada's deep consideration of the history and unwavering commitment of the American Civil Rights Movement, and the ways in which music has been an integral part of this force for humanity.

'Ten Freedom Summers' is a continually evolving form, from the first piece written in 1977, a tribute to activist, Medgar Evans, to the most recent composition, performed on this first night, devoted to the victims of the Birmingham Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Since 2009, Wadada has gained support from various foundations which has enabled him to continue adding to the original three 'Collections' that comprise the large work.

This performance had striking immediacy and a brilliantly affirmative sense of near-unpredictability: not improvised, but not tied down either. It was, above all, a live experience - for musicians and audience alike - which twisted and turned around Wadada's complex, moving compositions that owed as much to the contemporary classical idiom as they did to jazz.

Wadada cast a striking figure onstage, dreadlocked, in dark clothes as he took on the dual mantle of conductor and performer, a revealing insight to those more familiar with his improvised performances.

The venue’s setting had been expanded by moving one of the main speakers to the periphery to accommodate the additional musicians and the large two-screen backdrop on to which Jesse Gilbert projected an intriguing mix of abstract patterns, real time images of the musicians and historic photos.

Wadada's trumpet playing was crisp, sharp, viscerally focused, as though he was compressing his voice to the most direct format he could summon, while simultaneously directing the other musicians in the expression of his musical vision. He mouthed instructions, instructed through sweeping arm and hand movements, laughed at the odd incongruity and crouched down to ground level at key passages.

The Golden Quartet offered richly constructed responses, rooted in the contemporary jazz vernacular, to all the variations of mood, tone and articulation that Wadada demanded. Anthony Brown's percussion was stunningly vital, Anthony Davies roamed the keyboard with abstract virtuosity, and John Lindberg's supple bass lines and taut bowings occasionally synchronised with the Ligeti Quartet to form a virtual string quintet across the stage in a mesmerising two-hour journey of explorations, expansions and challenging iterations of this remarkable composer’s scores.

Wadada talked movingly at the close about the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination (22 November), and the Alabama bombing, explaining how Coltrane's 'Alabama' had been an inspiration to him. On a characteristically lighter note, he said he'd been energised by the concert, which had left him feeling 'cool' - like 'walking across the Alps sideways' - and how much he always enjoyed playing at Café Oto.

There are two more instalments of 'Ten Freedom Summers' - today (Friday) and Saturday - unique and unmissable.

Golden Quartet:

Wadada Leo Smith / trumpet, flugelhorn
Anthony Davies / piano
Anthony Brown / drums
John Lindberg / bass

Ligeti String Quartet

Mandhira de Saram / violin 1
Patrick Dawkins / violin 2
Richard Jones / viola
Ben Davis / guest cellist

Jesse Gilbert / artist

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