Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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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May 2, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

August 1, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Clinic in Smart Jazz Collaboration

Saxophonist Jason Robinson and pianist Anthony Davis have a new duo cd, Cerulean Landscape, out on Clean Feed, their first full-length album together. Richly melodic and often majestic, it’s simply one of the year’s best. The interplay and chemistry here are comfortably intuitive and strikingly collaborative, as you would expect from a couple of good listeners who’ve worked together frequently in the past. It’s less conversational than it is an exchange of ideas. The two share reconnaissance, intelligence and tactics, Davis’ piano sometimes taking on sax voicings with trills and glissandos of its own. Robinson’s aggression sometimes contrasts intensely with Davis’ judicious lyricism; sometimes it’s the other way around. Despite the title, there’s next to no blues here.

The opening track, by Davis, balances soprano sax stretching to break free, Davis’ signature third-stream elegance underneath. Finally Davis gets to cut loose himself and chase the demons away, then they end it on a quietly triumphant note. Someday I’ll Know, a ballad by Jason Sherbundy, lets Robinson flutter around, eventually ushering in a glimmering, terse solo passage from Davis, who takes it down to a modal-tinged apprehension that will recur memorably in places later on here. A study in contrasts, the third track, Viscissitudes, is something of a delayed-reaction call-and-response, frenetic circling sax over deft incisions that Davis eventually abandons and then follows with a similar apprehension. The musicians reverse roles on the unaffectedly magnificent Translucence, Davis’ alto flute treading gingerly while Davis glimmers darkly and insistently, Robinson leaping for a scampering run when Davis finally introduces some rhythm about three-quarters of the way through.

Robinson again plays good cop to Davis’ distantly moody menace on Of Blues and Dreams, complete with overtones flying from the soprano sax and Davis plucking and muting the piano strings. Davis’ shadow-and-surprise sniper attack late in the piece is arguably the high point of the album. After that, a swing tune without bass or drums – neither which seem necessary here, given the robust camaraderie – finally sees Davis taking a page out of Robinson’s bop book and cutting loose. The album winds up much the way it began, Robinson’s tangents extrapolating wildly from Davis’ mysterious home base, the circle expanding as Davis carefully maps out an increasingly playful series of puddlejumps.

Robinson also has two new other albums worth checking out. Cerberus Reigning is the second part of his ongoing solo Cerberus trilogy: it’s just Robinson, his saxes, some loops and a whole slew of effects. Don’t let the Dungeons ‘n Dragons song titles fool you – it’s soulful, lyrical, often very amusingly playful stuff. And his combo album The Two Faces of Janus with a cast including George Schuller, Marty Ehrlich and Rudresh Mahanthappa reaches for the occasional grit that surfaces on Cerberus and takes it up several notches.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment