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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
London
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.

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