Wadada Leo Smith has been on a roll in the 2010s, recording and composing in several formats, including ambitious, long-form works such as the Pulitzer-nominated Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012,) which dealt mostly with the history of race relations in America. His latest work concentrates on one specific figure mentioned in that suite, Rosa Parks, the woman whose defiance of racial segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama triggered a bus boycott that helped spark the civil rights movement from the mid 1950s onward. Smith celebrates her with a seven song oratorio performed by varying combinations of three vocalists, a string quartet, a trumpet quartet and a drummer plus electronics, in addition to some vintage free jazz samples.
Overall the music is stark and dramatic. The string quartet carries the majority of the instrumental load. The players fill the space, bowing in long arcs with elements of wariness and tension. Intermittent statements from the horns and drums give the music color while the voices add humanity and body. The singers take turns performing texts mostly written by Smith and each contributes a different texture and feeling. Their contrasting approaches really stand out in the section that comprises "Change It!," "The Truth," and "No Fear," accompanied by either the string quartet's edgy drones or a single, hovering viola or cello with Pheeroan AkLaff adding drum accents.
The "Vision Dance" sections of the oratorio bring the trumpets into the picture. They interact with the strings and percussion, bubbling up from an agitated murmur on "Rosa's Blue Lake" and pealing out of a hazy weave on "Defiance." Smith steps briefly to the front for crying and calling exchanges with Graham Haynes on "A Blue Casa" and a solo on "Apartheid." In addition, Smith leads in and out of certain sections with bits of old solo recordings by himself and his partners in the early AACM group, the Creative Construction Company: Steve McCall, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins.
This is a moving work. The dignified presentation of the singers is enhanced by the flowing tapestry of sound woven together by the various musical units. It has a spiritual beauty that is appropriate to the legacy of Rosa Parks and is yet another testament to Wadada Leo Smith's creativity.
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!
Blue Trumpet Quartet: Wadada Leo Smith: composer, trumpet; Ted Daniel: trumpet; Hugh Ragin: trumpet; Graham Haynes: cornet. Red Koral String Quartet: Andrew McIntosh: viola; Mona Tian: violin; Shalini Vijayan: violin; Ashley Walters; cello. Diamond Voices: Min Xiao-Fen, Carmina Escobar, Karen Parks: vocals. Janus Duo: Pheeroan akLatf: drum set; Hardedge: electronics. Musical excerpts: Anthony Braxton: alto saxophone (6); Leroy Jenkins: violin (7); Steve McCall, drum-set (6).
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