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Wadada Leo Smith Golden Quartet at La Sala Rossa

Mike Chamberlain By

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Wadada Leo Smith Golden Quartet
La Sala Rossa
Suoni Per Il Popolo
Montreal, Quebec
June 2, 2016

The Suoni Per Il Popolo, the annual June festival organized by the people at La Sala Rossa and Casa del Popolo, opened its Sala Rossa portion of the program with a concert by trumpeter/composer/teacher Wadada Leo Smith and his Golden Quartet of Anthony Davis, John Lindberg, and Pheeroan AkLaff playing music from Smith's Ten Freedom Summers, his collection of compositions inspired by the American Civil Rights decade from 1954 to 1964.

This was the third time I had seen the group perform this music over the last few years. The first two times were in larger halls that, due to the intimate nature of the music, did not serve the performers or the music well. The Sala Rossa's friendly acoustics and relatively small size seemed to allow for more serious listening both for the audience and the musicians.

Smith explained in a discussion period the next day that the music is not programmatic, but is in fact meant to capture psychological responses to the major events of the Civil Rights decade. Not jazz, but informed by the jazz, blues, gospel and gospel traditions, in tonality and the improvisational ethos, the music unfolds slowly, even haltingly, the limping two-note pattern of the first piece, anchored in John Lindberg's bass and Anthony Davis's lyrical musings a premonition of what was to come in the hour-long set.

The musicians moved through a number of the pieces during the performance, with the longest part devoted to Emmett Till. Smith's compositions allow for a certain degree of improvisational freedom for the musicians, and Smith provides a fair amount of onstage direction as well, pushing akLaff's dynamics, whose drumming was spare but pointed throughout, encouraging all the musicians, while putting down some sweet trumpet playing, bursts of notes and alternating long tones. Lindberg was the musical fulcrum for the quartet, as the other musicians, no matter where the music went, always seemed to orient towards his Magnetic North, and Anthony Davis's playing was exquisite. At one point, Smith walked over to the piano to compliment Davis for a solo.

Wadada Leo Smith is a wise man who has lived and learned a lot in his 74 years. As the music ended, he told the audience, "There's some good in people. Don't miss it."

The audience was rapt and appreciative, and Smith was happy to have the quartet play a short encore dedicated to Malcolm X. This was on the eve of the passing of Muhammad Ali, and though no one could have known that at the time, in retrospect, the music becomes even more poignant in light of that sad event.
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