Wadada Leo Smith’s Transcendent Opening Night at Roulette
Wadada Leo Smith isn’t always in a dead serious mood. After his spine-tingling show last night at Roulette, the New York debut of material from his 2012 magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year here), the trumpeter/composer treated the audience to a brief Q&A. Smith winkingly related that when a representative from Chamber Music America was scheduled to pay him a visit to finalize a deal for a single commission, he’d made sure to leave “Scores all over the house, on the floor, on…what’s that thing you put on top of the record player?” Three hours later, the CMA rep left, overwhelmed, and Smith had a deal in hand for several additional works.
Smith also explained that he and Emmett Till were both thirteen years old when Till was murdered. Smith was then living in Leland, Mississippi, about 250 miles from the crime scene. “It was kind of a time of fear,” he averred. Ten Freedom Summers traces the history of the civil rights movement through key moments like that – “One that might have something to do with what you call change,” Smith hinted caustically. The idea for the suite, Smith explained, was jumpstarted by his association with August Wilson (Smith’s trumpet was featured in the debut of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Opening the first night of Smith’s three-night stand that continues here through Friday, Smith’s long-running Golden Quartet was bolstered by the austere, often plaintive strings of Pacifica Red Coral. On one hand, given the gravitas and sheer heft of the suite (a four-cd set recorded mostly during a marathon seventeen-hour session), it was surprising that the show wasn’t completely sold out. Then again, there have been other major moments in jazz – at Massey Hall, for one – that weren’t sold out. When word gets out about how powerful, and intense, and matter-of-factly transcendent this one was, the sets tonight and tomorrow night, both at 8 PM, certainly will be. As of this moment (wee hours of May 2), there are still tickets available.
Smith’s music is grounded in the core values of the blues: economy of notes, a narrative arc and multiple levels of meaning. Even while the ensembles onstage in more than one instance were reinventing the material, it was with a thousand yard stare and a white-knuckle intensity, a common sense of purpose that never wavered. Had Smith schooled them beforehand about the topics the works were written to address? No, Smith told one interested concertgoer. The players simply felt the music. Characteristically, Smith chose his spots judiciously, intently bent over his horn, more inclined to brief resonant accents or tantalizing, allusive hints of chromatic menace than rapidfire cadenzas. Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff shadowed him early on, making rich, emphatic, sometimes portentously ornate, sometimes murderous use of his cymbals and toms. Bassist John Lindberg alternated between tersely incisive accents, stark bowed lines, and a moodily hypnotic blues/gospel groove in the long, increasingly agitated vamp illustrating the Brown vs. Board of Education case.
Pianist Anthony Davis, though he played with a similarly characteristic minimalism, might be the key to the entire unit, maximizing his presence with a glimmering, eerie upper-register resonance balanced by a murkily ominous lefthand. The strings – Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello – ramped up the intensity and suspense with anxious close harmonies that often fueled a sense of pleading or despair, other times exchanging deftly flitting harmonics or tensely swooping motives. Concert harpist Alison Bjorkedal punctuated the apprehensive opacity with an incisive steadiness, occasionally in tandem with the bass. Interestingly, Smith chose to open his stand by including the suite’s two quietest segments: an airily ghostly tone poem depicting the Washington, DC Vietnam War memorial wall, and what turned out to be an absolutely chilling, morose take of Black Church, an acidic piece for strings that might possibly be meant to evoke the horror in the wake of a church bombing.
Smith explained afterward that his portrait of Emmett Till – which hauntingly recycles a riff from Black Church – drew from how the blues can convey a feeling of simultaneous joy and anguish. The rich, briefly majestic portayal of a fearless young man quickly gave way to a corrosive, frantic string interchange and then a somber, elegaic mood, almost rubato but never left to collapse into chaos. The two ensembles wound up the show with an expansive, revealingly bare-bones version of the final track on the album’s first cd, a dignified, allusively neoromantic depiction of John F. Kennedy’s final ride in a horse-drawn hearse. If just that idea alone doesn’t get you out to the shows tonight or tomorrow night, you obviously have no need for transcendence.
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