Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's prolonged late career flowering shows no sign of abating with the creation of yet another epic work, following on the heels of his monumental Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012), Great Lakes Suite (TUM, 2014) and America's National Parks (Cuneiform, 2016). For his inspiration he takes the story of Rosa Parks, one of the heroines of the US Civil Rights Movement, famed for her role in the pioneering 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and draws on it as a basis for his meditations upon the Movement and where it led. For the first time he uses song-form to amplify his feelings.
By now Smith's music is an entirely sui generis amalgam of jazz and contemporary classical modes, scripted in his own unique language of Ankhrasmation. To realize his vision Smith calls on a cast of collaborators old and new. Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff has been a fixture of Smith's work since their first recording together in 1976, and he often provides the unifying link between sections here. He also constitutes part of the Janus Duo with the subtle electronics of Hardedge. Joining Smith on trumpets in the Blue Trumpet Quartet are fellow seasoned brassmen Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes.
Responsible for much of the melodic information, as well as more extreme textures, is the RedKoral String Quartet who have worked with Smith since Ten Freedom Summers. Finally, and most importantly for the oratorio form which Smith co-opts here, are the ethnically diverse Diamond Voices of Min Xiao-Fen from China (who also plays pipa), Carmina Escobar from Mexico and African American opera singer Karen Parks who give wings to Smith's words.
Smith's composerly voice remains evident throughout the 15 parts of the composition, tracked into seven cuts, in which the songs alternate with instrumental sections. His writing possesses a cinematic quality with elements reappearing throughout the work. The trumpets often seem to act as chorus, recalling like Smith in multiple guises, the string glissandos that seem to evoke a dream world, while the electronics stay unobtrusive and lower case. It's notable that the additional layers of meaning entailed by the multimedia aspects of the piece as detailed in the liners (video, dance, staging) are by necessity missing from this CD realization as they would augment the experience even further.
"Prelude: Journey" introduces the main characters, moving from the Blue Trumpet's stirring fanfares, along with akLaff's roiling drums to the jostling bow work of the string quartet, and then onto the understated electronics of Hardedge. While there's a hint of collage in how Smith juxtaposes or overlaps the ensembles, the progress from one to another is smoothly achieved, as is the way in which he manages the tension between dissonance and serenity.
Similarly well-integrated are recorded samples from a selection of Smith's band mates and fellow AACM members at the outset of his career: saxophonist Anthony Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins and drummer Steve McCall. In fact it would be easy to miss the short excerpts (20 seconds in Braxton's case) so adeptly does Smith weave them into his narrative.
"Rosa Parks: Mercy, Music for Double Quartet" twins the trumpet and string quartets in a whirl of awakening strings, and choral brass, who deliver Smith's beautiful lines with verve and poise. "Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott -381 Days of Fire" follows, sung by Xiao-Fen in the company of the strings, before her pipa ripples against ascending violin. It's a powerful and emotive section, featuring an affecting melody, sad but with an ultimate undercurrent of triumph.
There's grit too in the assertive sawing and bombastic martial percussion of "Song 4: Change It!." In a rousing call to action, Karen Parks bends Smith's words concerning democracy melismatically to fit the contours of the music. Smith sets Rosa Parks own words to a forceful rhythmic backing with soaring interludes in "Song 5: No Fear." It's the string players who get the most extended turns in the spotlight. For just one example take Shalini Vijayan's virtuoso violin excursion of multiple string sounding, impassioned sustains and high thin notes on "Vision Dance 3: Rosa's Blue Lake." Smith utilises Karen Parks transcendental voice for the culmination of his oratorio to sing the crowning "Song 7: Pure Love."
All the soloists and ensemble sections are identified in TUM's customarily sumptuous and exemplary packaging, helping to make this a deeply immersive experience.
Prelude: Journey; Vision Dance 1: Resistance and Unity; Rosa Parks: Mercy, Music for Double Quartet; Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott - 381 Days of Fire; Song 2: The First Light, Gold; Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice and Liberation; Song 3: Change It!; Song 4: The Truth; Song 5: No Fear; Vision Dance 3: Rosa´s Blue Lake; Song 6: The Second Light; Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa; Song 7: Pure Love; The Known World: Apartheid; Postlude: Victory!
Wadada Leo Smith, composer, trumpet; Karen Parks, vocalist; Min Xiao-Fen, vocalist; Carmina Escobar, vocalist; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Mona Thian, violin; Andrew McIntosh, viola; Ashley Walters, cello; Ted Daniels, trumpet; Hugh Ragin, trumpet; Graham Haynes, cornet; Pheeroan akLaff, drum-set; Hardedge, electronic.
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