Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers
Ten Freedom Summers
Without doubt Ten Freedom Summers is the crowning achievement of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's distinguished career to date. Years in the making, the complete sequence of 19 songs, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, was recorded live at Los Angeles' Red Cat club in 2011, producing over four hours of superbly nuanced, invigorating music. Southwest Chamber Music, under the direction of Jeff von der Schmidt, appears on 7 cuts interspersed through the program, alone or in various combinations drawn from Smith's Golden Quintet.
Previous outings for the Golden Quartet/Quintet, such as Tabligh (Cuneiform, 2008) and Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009) have been exemplary and Ten Freedom Summers continues that trend. Smith manages the trick of being free and expressive but within a controlled framework, occasionally manifest as tunes and themes, into which even solos fit. As a composer he allows space for extemporization within the superb interpretations of his charts. The whole cycle goes through the gamut of emotions associated with the Civil Rights campaign: hope, despair, anger, triumph, seriousness, fun, anxiety.
Smith's writing for the chamber ensemble matches the strength of that for his quintet, mixing single voices, especially the violins, small subsets and the whole ensemble. They have totally absorbed his conception, reveling in clear lines, multiple parts, melodic and warm. On the pieces for both Quintet and Ensemble, Smith sometimes takes an aleatory approach, juxtaposing unrelated material in similar ways to Charles Ives and Anthony Braxton, which can disconcert on first hearing, but adds another layer of interest subsequently.
Smith brings a remarkable depth of feeling to every note. In his unhurried delivery and blues-tinged sound he evokes Miles Davis. There is an inevitability to the placement of his notes, whether in heraldic fanfares or spiraling flights. Each player melds themselves to Smith's conception, ego subsumed. Smith aside, bassist John Lindberg is perhaps the most potent soloist, evidence of a rapport built up with the trumpeter's methods through an association stretching back over three decades. The bassist provides the fulcrum about which the music turns, whether imbuing riffs with an insouciant swing, or moving from subterranean rumbles to wavering vocalized cries in counterpoint. Like the leader, he is focused, never showing his entire hand at one time.
An acclaimed composer in his own right, pianist Anthony Davis gives a controlled interpretation. Like most incumbents of the piano chair in Smith's Golden Quartets, he prioritizes ensemble interaction over individual glory. Even when he cuts loose, as he does on "The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957," he does so with restraint. The twin drummers work in tandem, allowing both each other and the ensemble adequate space. To oversimplify, Pheeroan AkLaff (right channel) is the more direct, while Susie Ibarra (left channel) the more oblique, but either is eminently capable of powering and cosseting the group alone.
But regardless of the talent on show, Smith's conception is the real star. Smith deploys his resources with great care to magnificent effect, varying the combinations of instruments in a way that seems natural and unforced. "The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times" is a good example, constructed from a series of sparely voiced vignettes which combine to create a mood of reflective melancholy. While the overall picture is of complex shifting moods, a sense of epic struggle hovers throughout. Joyous or melancholic interludes are rarely sustained, but become just part of the journey, manifest as a constantly shifting blend of the cerebral and the down to earth. While some pieces sound so deliberate they might be through composed, with defined pockets for improvisation, others, notably the diaphanous "Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964" and more urgent "Democracy," present a much more open extemporized aspect. Solos where they exist extend the thematic material as with Lindberg on "Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press" where a flamenco introduction emphasizes the percussive before introducing a melodic sequence which launches the full quintet.
Each piece goes through multiple sections and moods. Take the 16 minutes of "Thurgood Marshall and Brown Vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954" as an example. Smith's annunciatory trumpet initially marches over a twin drum tattoo. Then a pause before Lindberg essays a funky riff, masterfully embellished by the two percussionists. Playfully blue piano and carefree trumpet lead into an uneasy rubato section which ends with the bassist slowly bowing the earlier riff. Trumpet and piano unite in a passage of stark clarity, which briefly transmutes into sparse dreamy colloquy for piano, bass and cymbals, until the energizing bass riff signals a brief theme restatement, rounded off by a plaintive pizzicato bass and piano coda. It can be difficult to grasp the overall structure of each piece, but they can be enjoyed in the moment.
Each disc, even each piece, would make a rich listening experience in its own right. As a package, although perhaps daunting at first blush, it amply rewards time invested.
Tracks: CD1: Dred Scott, 1857; Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada; Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless; Thurgood Marshall and Brown Vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954; John F. Kennedy's New Frontier And The Space Age, 1960. CD2: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days; Black Church; Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts Of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964; Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. CD3: The Freedom Riders Ride; Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years' Journey for Liberty and Justice; The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times; Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press; The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957. CD4: America, Pts. 1, 2 & 3; September 11th, 2001: A Memorial; Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964; Democracy; Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy.
Wadada Leo Smith: composer, trumpet; Anthony Davis: piano; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums; Susie Ibarra: drums; Southwest Chamber Music: Alison Bjorkedal: harp; Jim Foschia: clarinet; Lorenz Gamma: violin; Peter Jacobson: cello; Larry Kaplan: flute; Jan Karlin: viola; Tom Peters: bass; Lynn Vartan: percussion; Shalini Vijayan: violin.