Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers: A Powerful, Shattering Magnum Opus
Without hyperbole, Wadada Leo Smith’s new 4-cd suite Ten Freedom Summers (just released by Cuneiform) is an important moment in jazz history. Thirty years in the making, it’s Smith’s magnum opus, an attempt to not only chronicle the entirety of the civil rights movement but to put it in historical context, beginning in 1857 with the Dred Scott decision and ending on a decidedly unresolved note with September 11, 2001. Smith makes it abundantly clear that this struggle is far from over: while there are many triumphant moments here, ultimately they disappear in a sea of unease. Along with segments here titled Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964, and The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957, perhaps Smith will someday follow up with The March from 116th Street: An End to Racial Profiling, or Arizona 2013: The Battle for Immigrant Rights. The suite has two defining qualities: suspense and spaciousness. The terse judiciousness of Smith’s Golden Quartet, Golden Quintet and the 9-piece ensemble Southwest Chamber Music is remarkable by any standard: in over four eclectic hours of music that spans from straight-ahead jazz to what might be considered indie classical music, they simply don’t waste notes. Although the suite is often robust and aggressive, the tempos themselves are usually glacial, underscoring the effect of innumerable pregnant pauses and several long, atmospheric, pianissimo interludes. As free and fluid as much of the interplay here is, the singlemindedness and purposefulness of the playing is stunning. It’s as musically compelling as it is historically important, a triumph for Smith (whose trumpet drives many of the crescendos with an understated majesty) along with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Jon Lindberg, drummers Pheeroan AkLaff and Susie Ibarra along with the chamber orchestra conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt, with Alison Bjorkedal on harp, Jim Foschia on clarinet, Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan on violins, Peter Jacobson on cello, Larry Kaplan on flute, Jan Karlin on viola, Tom Peters on bass and Lynn Vartan on a variety of percussion instruments.
The opening contemplation of the Dred Scott decision illustrates a situation where the dam has broken and all hell is breaking loose, a tumbling fanfare with intimations of crowd noise. It rumbles, saws, alludes to a pending victory, circles more warily and ends with a guarded optimism. Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada (Smith’s titles are not lacking in specificity) balances elegantly spiritual-inflected piano with stately trumpet, low atmospherics and lots of pregnant pauses. The death of Emmett Till – and, as Smith emphasizes, his defiance and fearlessness – is memorialized by the Golden Quintet and orchestra together with a resolute insistence (particularly from Jon Lindberg’s bass) that moves into a warmly bucolic theme, then a series of foreshadowing interludes that culminate with a horrific crescendo, then eventually returns to a cinematic title theme of sorts: it is a shattering piece of music. Thurgood Marshall and the Brown vs. Board of Ed decision is illustrated by the most straightforward theme here, a swaying, funk-infused minor-key gospel/blues vamp anchored by the bass throughout a wildly tangential interlude that gives absolutely no indication of the payoff that Smith’s simple, magisterial trumpet will eventually deliver. The first disc ends with an epic, suspensefully optimistic, 22-minute tone poem on the theme of JFK’s New Frontier and the space age, an endless series of variations on a portentous, understatedly dramatic, optimistic motif that reaches all the way back to Richard Strauss.
Disc 2 begins with Rosa Parks, summery ambience over constantly shifting, expectant rhythms that eventually hit a rumbling crescendo driven by AkLaff. It ends well, and segues into Black Church, a potently brooding, funereal tone poem that may be an illustration of the aftereffects of a church bombing – or a bloodied bunch of protestors raising their voices together – or both. The voter registration drive during the summer of 1964 inspires Smith’s trumpet to rise with a rare carefree feel in contrast to wary, careful piano and bass, slowly swaying with an artful exchange of voices, ending with a moodily disguised funk groove. Even more clever is the on/off, in/out dichotomy as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 comes to fruition, through eerie Twilight Zone orchestration, outer-space piano and expectantly boomy drums, Smith finally pulling a massive theme together and then handing it over to Kaplan, whose flute cadenzas join with the orchestra in a colossal march to a screaming WAKE UP motif from the trumpet. Ambiguously as it ends, Smith leaves no doubt as to its impact.
The third disc’s opening contemplation of Freedom Riders scrambles with optimism and anticipation, bustling yet not cacaphonous, then takes a downturn to sad, resigned ambience before making its way up again, marked by some memorable boogie lefthand from Davis’ piano: it’s a vivid portrayal of dashed hopes and their renewal. The spacious, quietly fluttering meditation on Medgar Evers grows totally noir: the chilling conversation between Kaplan’s flute and Bjorkedal’s harp is one of the album’s high points. The suite’s quietest segment looks at the Washington, DC War Memorial Wall, stillness punctuated by the occasional drum, trumpet or piano accent that finally hits a brief, rather agitated moment that recedes quickly back into contemplation. An understated exasperation dominates Buzzsaw: The Myth of the Free Press, a series of variations on a descending progression that reaches in vain for a resolution and finally is allowed to hit the mark, Lindbolm then handing off to AkLaff, who then never lets it leave his grasp throughout a rustling solo. It segues into a depiction of the Little Rock Nine and their refusal to back down from the segregationists, a biting, minor-key bass motif at the center, Smith soaring and then spiraling over it as a defiant march comes together, as if to say, “We can pull this off!” Like most everything here, it ends opaquely, unresolved.
The final disc begins with a triptych titled America, Parts 1, 2 & 3, a fast, pulsing swing and then rumbling, animated bustle bookending an unselfconsciously beautiful, lyrical piano centerpiece. 9/11 gets both understated foreshadowing and an elegiac, rain-drenched piano-driven march rather than a depiction of the events of that dreadful day; then the Golden Quintet offers a wary, tensely spacious tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, Smith’s trumpet against somber ambience that eventually takes on a more guardedly hopeful pulse. Democracy, if Smith is to be believed, is pretty much pandemonium, in this case almost fifteen minutes of it, imbued with a constant sense of apprehension: finally, the trumpet offers a weary hint of a conclusion and the rest of the ensemble follows, the twin drums winding it down. The suite ends with both the quintet and the orchestra joining forces for Martin Luther King Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy, a horrifying, haunting depiction of the events of that fateful day, opening with a majestic, blues-infused theme that quickly gives way to a macabre motif that eventually makes its way from Vartan’s vibraphone to the bass, shifts to Bernard Herrmann-esque otherworldliness and then an ominous scramble that speaks to the confusion on the ledge outside the motel; it ends with a return to the bluesy majesty of the intro.
Like Ryan Truesdell’s recent collection of newly unearthed Gil Evans compositions, this album transcends any consideration of where it might stand by comparison to other albums released this year. Instead, consider this as a jazz counterpart to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a chronicle with artistic merit equal to its inestimable historical value. It ranks with the best and most important work of Smith’s fellow musical freedom fighters: Shostakovich, Umm Kulthumm, the Dead Kennedys, Max Roach, Marcel Khalife and Bob Marley, to name a few.
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