Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers (2012)

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Photos: Steve Gunther

We tend to think of musicians who have been able to keep coming forth with creative, fresh ideas with nearly every attempt in the past tense. Mozart, Ellington, Miles, The Beatles are a few who can fit into that category but they are of long past eras. Very few if any will ever be mentioning avant jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader Wadada Leo Smith in the same breath as these icons of music, but his consistent productivity in undertaking and executing meaningful, large scale projects built on new ideas is on par with these better known greats. Now into the fifth decade of his career, Smith only seems to be accelerating both the frequency and the scale of his ideas. Just take a look at his tag for a cross section of the product that he’s put out in just the last few years to get an inkling of this.

Now comes what will likely be the most ambitious undertaking of his musical life, which is saying something. The sprawling Ten Freedom Summers is themed on the American Civil Rights Movement. Smith literally composed these nineteen pieces (and two more unrecorded) over the course of half of his life. The first one of these came from a request from out-jazz violin king Leroy Jenkins. “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice Of A Thousand Years’ Journey For Liberty And Justice” came in 1977, and from there, a trickle trickle that becme a torrent in the last three of this 34 year gestation period. Musically, these songs aren’t connected, they are stand alone compositions, even as they are tied by this civil rights theme with a concentration on the 1954-1964 period. Instead of this being a broad, sweeping examination of a thick, complex chapter in American History, each of Smith’s songs are centered around specific events that marked the progress of the freedom movement.

Introduced to a live audience in California last October over three nights, Smith led his Golden Quartet/Quintet performing alongside the nine-piece Southwest Chamber Music orchestra conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt and shortly afterwards went into the studion with these two groups to record it. Spread out over 4 — that’s four — CD discs, it takes over four and a half hours to listen through it all (yes, I did listen through it all. That’s my job, after all). It’s Smith magnum opus, with “magnum” meaning, “a hell of a lot of music.”

The Golden Quintet this time is comprised of Smith, Anthony Davis (piano), John Lindberg (bass), Susie Iberra (drums) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums). When these guys play, it’s easier to absorb the Golden-dominated tracks as someone already accustomed to listening to the band. Smith is a master at creating dramatic swells and silences in his music, and deliver it through a sympathetic, cooperative small ensemble. When they play the first song titled “Dred Scott, 1857,” the turbulence and disillusionment is an audio image of the turbulence and disillusionment surround the Dred Scott case. That’s what Smith intends, for the listener to let the music tell the story about the event.

The orchestra doesn’t make its presence known until about five minutes into the third track, “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless,” as Lindberg is quietly laboring away on his bass solo. Soon, the SCM takes overmost the instrumentation playing out a turbulent mood, more than merely performing a chamber piece. That’s when Smith returns to add the punctuation points, and for the first time, we are getting an answer on how will he reconcile the West’s most advanced form of music with Africa’s (via America) most advanced form of music advanced form of music. He does it well. “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier And The Space Age, 1960” is nearly entirely SCM save for Davis’ piano, a piece that’s rendered entirely on the classical side of the ledger, the first of several songs performed that way.

The alternation between the avant-jazz and avant-classical can sometimes be jarring, but where SCM is joined by the Golden Quintet, as on “Emmitt,” “The Little Rock Nine: A Force For Desegregation In Education, 1957,” and “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy,” the mashing together of these two divergent units brought together by Smith’s composing pen is often fascinating. Perhaps even more so is the SCM + Smith performance on “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society And The Civil Rights Act Of 1964.” Smith’s trumpet, when it’s muted and when it’s not, fits in so well inside the chamber music aesthetic because of his great sense of pace, cadence and nuanced articulation, much of the same reasons why the bop-trained Miles Davis could thrive within Gil Evans’ orchestrations.

There’s much patience demanded of listeners to spend a whole afternoon absorbing Wadada Leo Smith’s dense, difficult music. He can groove and even swing, but there’s not a trace of either to be found on these four discs. This box set ain’t for everybody, maybe not even for some of Wadada’s fans. But there’s plenty of history running through these notes and beats and this living avant garde legend put a lot of his considerable talents into it. For those with the open mindedness and willingness, there’s a lot to get out of it, too.

Ten Freedom Summers will be sold in stores online and offline on May 22, by Cuneiform Records.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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