Wadada Leo Smith

Ten Freedom Summers
Cuneiform Records RUNE 350/351/352/353

By Ken Waxman

Striving to musically capture defining moments in African-American history, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has written 19 compositions to mostly reflect events of the Civil Rights era from 1954-1964; the Ten Freedom Summers of the title. In a gestation period that began in 1977 and consumed most of his time during a three-year stretch before this four-CD set was recorded in late 2011, Smith broadened his focus back to the Dred Scott case and forward to September 11th. Interpreted by the jazz-sophisticated members of his Golden Quartet/Quintet (GQ) plus the Southwest Chamber Music (SCM) group, 70-year-old Smith calls the program, “one of my life’s defining works”. Personal rather than pedantic, the compositions celebrate defining moments. Although there are related motifs among them, linkage is more psychological than sonic. Each composition is designed to stand on its own.

Smith has stated that Ten Freedom Summers was inspired by August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle which similarly deals with the 20th Century Black experience; plus Civil Rights-era jazz compositions such as saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and drummer Max Roach’s LP-length We Insist: Freedom Now!” suite. But as a theorist, educator, AACM member and improviser whose associates have ranged from multi-reedist Anthony Braxton to guitarist Henry Kaiser, the trumpeter created the compositions here after his own fashion. Very few are programmatic on their own, for instance.

The closest would probably be “Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954”. With stentorian beat promulgated by the military styled pacing of drummers Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan akLaff, the inevitability of the demands for equal education for all Americans is underlined. Added to this pulse are scrubbed bass lines, tremolo piano chording from Anthony Davis and the composer’s brassy grace notes. Piano key clips and R&B-styled percussion backbeats reminiscent of Julius Hemphill’s “The Hard Blues” reinforce the theme, which reaches its climax with a celebratory sequence that is carefully harmonized as it heralds the militancy of the following decade.

A valuable addition to Smith’s team is pianist Davis. Someone whose pedigree includes improvising with the likes of trombonist George Lewis, he also composes large-scale notated works. With impeccable keyboard finesse Davis negotiates between the two ensembles, minimizing any fissure that could arise in the mixture of styles. For instance on “Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957”, it’s Davis’ easy-going arpeggios which link Larry Kaplan’s recital-like flute passages and the SCM’s gentle string swells with the GQ’s freer voicing that encompasses Smith’s growling trumpet, bassist John Lindberg’s paced walking and drummer Ibarra’s pops and ruffs. During a finale of echoing tones, Smith’s slurred grace notes finally cement both factions.

Although secondary to Smith’s theme, many of Ten Freedom Summers’ compositions provide new validity for Third Stream creation. The most notable instance is “Lyndon B Johnson's Great Society and The Civil Rights Act of 1964”, where backed by the SCM, solos are divided between Smith and SCM violinist Shalini Vijayan. Over the course of 24 minutes, sensitized glissandi on the violinist’s part are not only are conveyed with an exquisite tone, but during the finale variations are stretched tautly without losing their warmth. Again encouraged by Davis’ skill in outputting both formalist and jazz-pulsed licks, the muted or plunger trumpet solos express textures that are as much “legit” as they are so-called jazzy. While Smith’s sequences are played in a congruent fashion rather than commenting upon or complementing violin passages, his instant theme-reshaping at times prevents Vijayan’s variations from moving too far out of sync. Parallel harmonies during crescendos ensure the narrative is never severed.

What’s more the underlying strength of Smith’s compositions is such that even when the SCM plays on its own, the focus isn’t lost in semi-classical prettiness. Interpreting “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years Journey For Liberty and Justice”, the dirge-like tune Smith initially composed for violinist Leroy Jenkins, the SCM proves itself capable of mood-appropriate interpretations. Aided by Davis’ key fanning, the Jeff von der Schmidt-conducted nonet sustains the melancholy mood with pizzicato lines divided contrapuntally among harpist Alison Bjorkedal, violinists Vijayan and Lorenz Gamma plus violist Jan Karlin. Underneath the undulating strings, percussionist Lynn Vartan provides a thunder clap-like continuum of kettle drums resonations plus marimba bar hammering,

Outsized in more than bulk, this four-CD set manages to simultaneously commemorate major achievements in American race relations, legitimize Third Stream fusion and confirm Smith’s role as a major composer.

Track Listing: Disc 1: 1. Dred Scott: 1857 2. Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahadah 3. Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless* 4. Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954 5. John F Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960 Disc 2: 6. Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days+ 7. Black Church 8. Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, an Act of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964 9. Lyndon B Johnson's Great Society and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Disc 3: 10. The Freedom Riders Ride* 11. Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years Journey For Liberty and Justice 12. The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial For All Times* 13. Buzzsaw: The Myth of the Free Press+ 14. Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957* Disc 4: 15. America, Parts 1, 2 & 3+ 16. September 11th, 2001: A Memorial 17. Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democracy Party, 1964 18. Democracy 19. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy*

Personnel: The Golden Quartet/Quintet: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet and flugelhorn; Anthony Davis: piano; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan akLaff+ and/or Susie Ibarra*: drums and Southwest Chamber Music: Jeff von der Schmidt: conductor; Jim Foschia: clarinet; Larry Kaplan: flute; Shalini Vijayan and Lorenz Gamma: violin; Jan Karlin: viola; Peter Jacobson: cello; Alison Bjorkedal: harp; Tom Peters: bass; Lynn Vartan: percussion

—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2013