Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers at London Jazz Festival 2013

John Sharpe BY

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Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers: London, England, November 21-23, 2013
Wadada Leo Smith
Café Oto
November 21-23, 2013

As part of the London Jazz Festival, over three consecutive evenings, Dalston's Cafe Oto presented the European premiere of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers magnum opus. Although such a groundbreaking production might be more expected in one of the large auditoriums on the capital's South Bank, the goodwill built up over series of residencies and dates in town over the last four years resulted in the concerts taking place in the intimate surroundings of Cafe Oto. In spite of appearances dating back to the mid-1970s, this was the first time Smith had been able to mount one of his own projects in the UK.

Ten Freedom Summers encompasses some 19 works inspired by the American Civil Rights struggle, for Smith's Golden Quartet and chamber ensemble. Smith's tribute to the movement, is focused around the activities of the period 1948-1968, much in the same way that playwright August Wilson's racially centered The Pittsburgh Cycle comment on ten decades of the African-American experience in America, but through musical composition/improvisation. Smith constructs his ideas from events and major figures in African Americans' march toward equality. Since the definitive version documented on Cuneiform Records in 2012 which pairs his Quartet with the nine-piece South West Chamber Ensemble, Smith has added several new pieces, meaning that the full cycle totals almost seven hours of music.

For the Oto performances the London-based Ligeti Quartet took the place of the South West Chamber Ensemble, meaning that the numbers written for the Ensemble were rearranged with members of the Golden Quartet taking on the remaining parts. Far from being a hindrance, it actually helped increase the cohesion between the two units. Each night showcased a collection drawn from Ten Freedom Summers, with the string quartet partaking of roughly half, including three pieces for them alone. Also on board, video artist Jesse Gilbert supplemented the music by projecting visual effects on two screens erected behind the musicians. At intermittent intervals he combined historical images relevant to the genesis of the pieces, varying shapes and patterns triggered in part by the music, and live footage.

If anyone was expecting faithful renditions of the albums they would have been disappointed. Notwithstanding the altered instrumentation, it was immediately obvious that Smith took a very hands on approach to the arrangements, orchestrating in the moment through a mixture of verbal, visual, physical and musical cues. Sometimes he also conducted directly from the score, with pauses as the musicians changed pages. Even in passages which sounded improvised, everyone was intent on the charts. Such was Smith's dramatic use of silence as an integral part of his music, that it wasn't always clear when a piece was over so the respectful audience often waited for a visual clue before applauding.

Often one piece merged into another in a continual flow during each night's unbroken set. When there was a pause, Smith occasionally described the root of the pieces, exhorting listeners to check out the moving back stories pertinent to the music. Not surprisingly for a work revolving around the battle for Civil Rights, the overwhelming mood was somber and at times even austere, though leavened by outbursts of potent butt-swinging funk and exuberant melodicism, all brought to roaring, passionate, seething life by the assembled eight musicians.

Relatively few explicit solos materialized during each evening, as individual expression was so well-subsumed into the fabric of the music. For this edition of the Golden Quartet, Smith had gathered an experienced all star cast. On piano was Anthony Davis, who initially played with the trumpeter at age 19, and made his recorded debut on Smith's Reflectativity (Kabell, 1974), preceding a stellar group with flutist James Newton, before a series under his own leadership. Since then he has taught at prestigious Universities in the US and received plaudits for works such as his opera "X," based on the life of Malcolm X. His compositional savvy fitted neatly, as for much of the time the pianist's role seemed primarily structural, as not only was he playing the piano parts, but also picking up those of some of the absent instruments, such as harp, flute and clarinet. His spots emerged as part of the group interchange. When he did hold forth it was perfectly assimilated within the structure of the piece, waves of sound balanced with insistent single note accents in the stormier moments, but graceful and tender in rippling ballad interludes.

Perhaps because bass solos are generally unaccompanied, John Lindberg benefited most from the spotlight, and affirmed his place as one of the premier bassists in the music. After early acclaim as co-founder of the String Trio of New York and as part of reedman Anthony Braxton's quartet, the bassist has worked with a plethora of luminary artists, including Albert Mangelsdorff, Susie Ibarra, Karl Berger, John Carter, and Roswell Rudd. But some 30 years has elapsed since he last appeared in London, and it was a pleasure to be reacquainted. One individual feature towards the close of the second evening was phenomenal, involving a range of unusual textures, with buzzing strings (a sound I've only otherwise heard extracted from the bass by Mark Dresser) and strings stretched so far from the fret they resounded with a whipcrack thwack, all harmonized into a enthralling and musical whole.

As the newest recruit to the Golden Quartet, drummer Anthony Brown was perhaps less familiar with the voluminous charts (although Davis also encountered problems), but acquitted himself well. Brown originally came to notice in the early-'80s as part of Bay Area collective United Front, but since then has lead his own Asian American Orchestra, whose rendering of Duke Ellington's "Far East Suite" was nominated for a Grammy in 2000. He offset raging polyrhythms with tuneful cymbal and drum cadences, at times extending the spectrum of tonal color through ploys such as rubbing his sticks across the drum heads.

Although part of his time was spent marshalling his resources from center stage, whenever he put horn to lips, Smith's output was emotionally charged, dealing largely in expressive declamatory gestures. Whatever the actual notes, his majestic understated lyricism came infused with a raw blues tint, perhaps to be expected given his upbringing as the stepson of Mississippi bluesman Alex Wallace and his youthful spell in Little Milton's blues band. He fused elongated tones, generously spiced by silence, with fiery waspish salvos, and occasional episodes of breathy susurration and timbral prowess.

To open the first evening, the Golden Quartet launched into a frantic-paced "Dred Scott: 1857," which made for an uncompromising introduction for those unfamiliar with the celebrated recording. Just like on the album, each piece formed an event-packed journey, although the nature of those events was not constant. After the maelstrom opened up for a pastoral piano/bass duet, the piece mutated first into a threesome with percussion, then a hard hitting drum solo from Brown. Smith indicated a quiet cymbal shimmer, presaging a passage of muted trumpet with sensitive piano and bass accompaniment. Then came a sequence of pinched trumpet squeals which intertwined with Lindberg's delicate arco, before a tremendously vibrant bowed solo from the bassist, and a final elegant section in which Smith channeled Miles Davis' melancholy-imbued soulfulness.

If the earlier piece had served to make acquaintance with the band and their capabilities, then the next accomplished the same function for the Ligeti Quartet, comprising Mandhira de Saram and Patrick Dawkins on violins, Richard Jones on viola and guest cellist Ben Davis. In four movements, the foursome moved from a series of overlapping and intermittently converging angular lines which seemed extemporized, to sighing slurs and cerebral yet approachable classicism. Many of the characteristic traits of Smith's work, such as wide intervallic leaps, harmonic chiaroscuro, arching abstraction and lavish use of space also surfaced in his writing for strings. His string quartet, "Black Church" was given a masterful reading on the second evening, replete with light and shade, with both melodies and high harmonics fleetingly traversing the ensemble.

On the last evening the Ligeti outfit began with an outstanding recital of another of Smith's string quartets "In The Diaspora." After starting with a series of sweeping glissandos, led by de Saram on first violin, the group broke into scratchy oratory, the bursts of activity interspersed with the meaningful pauses typical of Smith's oeuvre. By turns percussive, incorporating foot stomping by Jones, and inquisitive, examining the smallest squeaks and abrasions, the interpretation could easily have passed for exciting and accomplished group invention, were it not for the fact that all four regularly turned the pages of their scores. The piece ended as it began with a return to the swirling slides. As it happened the string quartet did not participate again until the final number of the evening, one of the few regrets of a remarkable closing night.

It seemed that the opening night almost acted as a sighter. As good as it was, everything on the second seemed just that bit sharper: the sound, the visuals, the transitions between pieces, and the interplay between the band and strings, and that trend continued with the final night if anything better still. Perhaps the most compelling selection on the first evening was the last: "John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960" with the string quartet vigorously articulating Smith's tensile lines, abetted by Davis picking up the parts of harp and clarinet, and Lindberg bowing his bass as a fifth string. Together they created a portentous and powerful conclusion to the night.

Highlights came thick and fast as the program unfolded, including one new piece completed only a month before—"That Sunday Morning"—which commemorated the murder of four black children in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama on 15 September 1963. Gilbert affectingly knitted images of the four children and the church into the shifting visuals. Smith called the piece on both the first two nights, perhaps influenced by the fact that the second evening was being captured for broadcast by BBC Radio 3. Serene, though packing an impassioned kick irrespective of the context, the piece incorporated a lovely jazzy stroll for piano and bass, and a rhythmic motif, as Smith explained afterwards, borrowed from John Coltrane's classic "Alabama" lamenting the same atrocity, to forge a link to the continuum of music drawn from the Civil Rights campaign.

"America" began amid a flurry of intense group exchanges, engendering an incendiary exposition by the leader, supported by churning counterpoint from Davis, as if everyone was soloing at the same time. A sparkling rubato section followed with soothing trumpet, before gradual dissonances lead back into a knotty finale. After a spacious beginning, with jumpy piano phrases contrasting with sustained bowed bass and trumpet strains, "Little Rock Nine: A Force For Desegregation In Education, 1957," boasted an earthy bass ostinato, doubled by piano, which took on a mesmeric incantatory feel, emphasized by Brown's martial tattoo. As the interaction unfurled, Smith walked over to the piano to instigate a wonderful sequence of darting rhythmic interplay with Davis. Smith replicated that visceral gambit elsewhere too, notably on "September 11th, 2001: A Memorial" where against a backdrop of images of the ruined World Trade Center, Lindberg executed another monumental bass riff around which the band locked in an exhibition of awesome command.

The bassist was prominent in "Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press" too as he embarked upon another superb extravaganza, alternating strums and thickets of bent and slurred notes, before chopping on the strings and slapping both the fretboard and the body of the bass in a percussive outpouring reminiscent of English bassist John Edwards, as Smith squatted beside him, offering silent encouragement. Later in the same piece, Smith stilled the ensemble to frame a dialogue for his spluttering trumpet and Lindberg's bass sawed below the bridge to elicit high wavering cries.

Rounding off the third evening and the overall cycle, "Martin Luther King Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy" mingled the two quartets in jostling symbiosis, around an ominous bass figure, and sudden changes in dynamics. The piece finished in a series of thunderous crashes signaled by Smith amid restless group colloquy before everyone stopped for the leader to expunge one final anguished blast from his trumpet. It was a electrifying and fitting culmination to a stupendous achievement and one which it felt a privilege to witness at such close quarters.

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