Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers: Cuneiform Records, 2012

Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is not simply a four disc boxed set of recorded music. It is a historical document written throughout a single period of the African-American trumpeter’s conscious lifetime about the never-ending saga of the African-American people. Smith’s concept for the relation of particularly contentious stories within the entangled context of American life not only addresses landmark events but also the underpinnings of those events in the detail that becomes as abstract as his music can make them.

These recordings diverge from the program of the live premiere in Los Angeles in October, 2011, over three nights. The recordings have more music than was performed then and the sequence of pieces has been altered.  The power of the juxtaposition of one piece to the next, however, remains the same. Absent also is the final speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which concluded the original performance. Notable is Smith’s sensitivity to the extent to which temporal constraints can be stretched. Whereas time was a factor in what could be performed, time is not a factor in listening to the records. 

The language of the music is meant for conveying and directing feeling, much of which is so deeply imbedded in Smith that it takes no effort for him to express it when he blows into his trumpet alone or its sound is integral to the improvisations of his Golden Quintet/Quartet and the elegantly constructed, carefully sculpted measures played by an ensemble derived from Southwest Chamber Music. The colors of the classical components of this music create unarguably indispensable tensions in stark relation to Golden Quintet/Quartet’s inexorably unique based-in-the-blues sonic lushness.

Even though the trumpet falls into silence more than once, it returns valiantlySmith does not fool around. His tone is unmistakably certain, demonstrating no influence from the past, only the strength of his commitment to the delivery of his own notes.  The musicians in Golden Quartet/Quintet (including bassist John Lindberg; pianist Anthony Davis; drummers Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra) know Smith’s sensibilities so well that the players behave as one organic whole. akLaff’s drumming is much larger in gesture than Ibarra’s whose stick technique tends towards elegant diversified cymbal strikes and sibilance rather than towards large booming uproarious tom/bass drum resonance.

All artists want to have something to sink their teeth into, something to explore, to shape, to know so well that it is automatic to be active in a certain frame of mind. The density of the ingredients of Ten Freedom Summers warrants absorption and digestion. The Southwest Chamber Music players are cast in the role of playing some of the most gripping lines in the entire piece, suitable for evoking a sense of loving, true sadness and tragedy. But Smith has composed recurrent contrasting patterns within the combination of Golden Quartet/Quintet and classical music ensemble.  

For instance, Lindberg’s extraordinary solo and a repeated two notes segues into the main body of “Emmett Till” when the Southwest Chamber Music string players and harpist take over; or the trumpet ushers in the hugeness of the tympani sound, violin sustenuto and piano/tympani unison in “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society;” or the music falls apart and somehow pulls back together in a three-note trumpet ostinato in “Democracy;” or in “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education,” Golden Quintet opens up into an exhilarating blues essay: Davis hits just the right treble notes; Lindberg plays a bass line that has just the right retard; or akLaff strikes the snare at offbeat moments; all of which disintegrates into a raucous sound tug that remarkably evolves into Smith's muted trumpet solo to end with a reprise of the initial theme on bass.

Golden Quartet/Quintet’s clarity and purpose is never lost, nor is the formalism of Southwest Chamber Music, because Smith’s music is aimed in a certain direction. The musical statements in Ten Freedom Summers are nothing short of arresting, a reason to shed tears often, and are so much about exposing ideas so frequently brushed under the rug and trampled upon that it is not enough just to wonder why the latter is so. Every round of pieces culminates with a striking, unfettered conclusion: the first with “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and The Space Age, 1960;” the second, with “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and The Civil Rights Act of 1964;” the third, with “The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957;” and the fourth, with “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy.”

Wadada Leo Smith is proud to live in America and be an American. If there were any doubts, due to his rebellious nature, more thought might go into the reasons why he is rebellious. To listen to the nearly fifteen minute section, “Democracy,” paints Smith’s questioning perception of how disturbingly confused the country is about the principles on which the country is built. But to listen to “America, Part 1” is to hear a description of the magnificence of living in a free country. Without being free, Smith would have little room for collaborating on his work, much less actualizing it.

Art is intended to provide inspiration to move forward and change. Ten Freedom Summers is a work of art that is seldom available to experience. Not many artists have the gumption to speak so straightforwardly and, at the same time, so beautifully and with such excellence, that, on the receiving end, the reluctance to change is cast aside; the incentive to change is inculcated into a thought and learning process and might actually be achievable.

©2012 Lyn Horton

The Players
Golden Quartet: Anthony Davis, piano; Susie Ibarra, Pheeroan Aklaff, drums; John Lindberg, bass; Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet.

Southwest Chamber Music: Alison Bjorkedal, harp; Jim Foschia, clarinet; Lorenz Gamma, violin; Peter Jacobson, cello; Larry Kaplan, flute; Jan Karlin, viola; Tom Peters, bass; Lynn Vartan, percussion; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Jeff von der Schmidt, conductor.
Disc One:
Dred Scott: 1857 [Golden Quintet];
Malik Al Shabazz and the People of Shahada [Golden Quintet];
Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless [Golden Quartet w/ Susie Ibarra & Southwest Chamber Music];
Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954 [Golden Quintet];
John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960 [Southwest Chamber Music].

Disc Two:
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days [Golden Quartet w/ Pheeroan akLaff];
Black Church [Southwest Chamber Music];
Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964 [Golden Quintet];
Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [Southwest Chamber Music; Wadada Leo Smith and Shalini Vijayan, soloists].

Disc Three:
The Freedom Riders Ride [Golden Quartet w/ Susie Ibarra];
Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years Journey For Liberty and Justice [Southwest Chamber Music];
The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times [Golden Quartet w/ Susie Ibarra];
Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press [Golden Quartet w/ Pheeroan akLaff]
The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation In Education, 1957 [Golden Quartet w/ Susie Ibarra & Southwest Chamber Music].

Disc Four:
America Parts 1, 2 & 3 [Golden Quartet w/ Pheeroan akLaff];
September 11th,  2001: A Memorial [Golden Quintet];
Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964 [Golden Quintet];
Democracy [Golden Quintet];
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy [Golden Quartet w/ Susie Ibarra & Southwest Chamber Music].

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Renewal: Starting Again: New Perspective: Gotta Do It

Before The Storm Irene, August, 2011 copyright 2011-2 Lyn Horton

For a long time, I have, in the back of mind, been considering writing exclusively for my blog and that time has come. It behooves me to share the reasons for withdrawing from the online publications and one print publication to which I have been contributing over a span of nearly twenty years.

The first to go was Jazzreview.com. I started writing scattered articles for Morrice Blackwell in 1996 and began to turn it on approaching the year 2000. In that year, my now ex-husband decided to go in a direction other than the one I thought I was traveling. Devastated and reeling with emptiness, urged by my son and Morrice and Joe McPhee, I immersed myself in music. I listened; I wrote. Not that how I wrote then was perfect-far from it. The performance reviews were extremely lengthy, to the point of exhaustion. The record reviews were better because I did not have much visual information to absorb and translate.

The more I attended concerts of creative improvised music, the more I learned to hear. I could detect the way instruments layered their sonic planes. The lines became clearer and clearer. The intention of my writing was and still is to describe...to filter for the reader the experience of listening and in some cases observing and becoming a witness to a series of artistic conversations whose vagaries were indeterminate, whose conclusions were complete surprises. I began to correlate my own visual creative instincts with that of musicians. The further I delved into "the music," the more of an advocate I became for this rarely instituted activity.

It was as if I was diving into a pool and learning how to negotiate the waters. Jazzreview.com gave me a consistently supportive place to practice my strokes. After about seven years or so, I changed course. Having written one concert review of the Iyer/Ladd collaboration, In What Language, which I had seen at UMassAmherst, on AllAboutJazz.com in 2005, when the Jazzreview.com site was down for repairs, I decided to ask if I could be a regular contributor to AllAboutJazz.com. I contacted Michael Ricci, initially; he directed me to John Kelman.

My first encounter with John Kelman was off-putting; he was strident about the rules of the road at AAJ. I had to follow them to the letter. The editing of my articles was not too severe, where there seemed to have been more of a laissez-faire approach at Jazzreview.com. It was not too far in to my working with the AAJ editorial staff that one of my articles was deleted from the roster. When I asked why this was the case, the editor who deleted it emailed me with a reference to an acceptable article with the directive: "Read and learn." I thought that this instruction was arrogant and unnecessary, even though the over 500-word article I had written was horrible and I understood why it had been eliminated. I was counseled to stick with writing record reviews that were 500 words exactly or less. The performance reviews were another matter; I could include photographs and a little more room to expand. But those articles, too, were combed and re-worded, sometimes in language I would not have used.

Nevertheless. I was learning how to write. And I was happy that I became accustomed to the bevy of limitations. Most of the time, the editing was appropriate and when I discussed what I disagreed with, a compromise was reached. I turned in over one hundred articles for AllAboutJazz.com. All of the articles gave me satisfaction; I was supported by the staff. The self-pressure to write "for the musicians" overwhelmed me. I wanted to ensure the success of the musicians rather than garner any recognition for myself. But I was happy. The musicians were happy; the record companies which sent me records for review were happy. It was a real love-fest.

With this feeling of good will amongst all involved, I took on writing for The New York Jazz Messenger, at the time called All About Jazz-New York, for which I was paid. The first review I wrote was negative. Despite the fact that Laurence Donohue-Greene laid the groundwork to the record company that the review of their new release was pretty dark, the article was printed. At that point, the articles in the print publication automatically were posted on the AAJ.com site. The review I had written was not posted. When I asked Laurence why, he said he did not know. He talked to Michael Ricci. A large kerfuffle ensued. It was my idea that the problem was related to advertising and money. I thought to myself, I am touching on some unattractive issues. Albeit, I was essentially naive, I was learning quickly how things go. When I saw Michael Ricci at that year's JJA Award dinner, I approached him, at which time, he apologized to me for not speaking with me directly after the incident. It bothered me that he had waited so long and that it took a face-to-face encounter to elicit a response. Everything was now smoothed over and we went on our merry way.

The development of my writing had come a long way. It was easier to write for the AAJ website than for the print publication. The latter demanded that I cut down to 250-300 words, which I eventually could do fairly easily, although I was noticing that I was not always assigned articles. I ignored that; I had enough to do. I was beginning to do profiles of musicians on the AAJ site, which I always pitched myself until Kelman suggested I do one on Wadada Leo Smith.

I did not follow Wadada’s music at the time. Cursory research on him brought me to the conclusion that I could do a profile on someone whom I did not know. The work related to Smith's profile was intense. In fact, I never worked so hard in my life. I had not known DJ Spooky or Thurston Moore or Matthew Shipp or David S. Ware when I interviewed them for profiles at Jazzreview.com.  For some reason, writing those profiles did not tax me as did the mere prospect of writing about Wadada. Kelman had done me a real favor. It was my plan to check Wadada out at Firehouse 12 in New Haven in September of 2010; I was assigned the article in January that year. It took me months to research material, listen to recordings, and cull information out of two hour long phone interviews. The article was published in May.

The Smith profile became a pivotal point for me and my writing. I gained immense confidence. This marked ten years of writing. Only one musician had paid me to write liner notes. Only one publication had paid me minimally per article. And Downbeat printed five Letters-to-the-Editor and paid me once for an article which created a bundle of controversy for the subject I covered.

I was hanging in there as I have done for so many years with my art making. I sought out yet another place where I could submit articles and perhaps be paid.

The editor at JazzTimes.com found a niche for my niche writing. He offered to pay me once for a profile on Burton Greene, but then said that the owner of the magazine was not prepared to pay for online submissions. I complied with his statement and continued to write for the online publication.

The pressure that I felt writing for JazzTimes.com was less than I felt when contributing to AllAboutJazz.com. It was my intention to submit an article on percussionist Warren Smith to AAJ; that had been determined in the fall of 2009 to be published in the spring of the following year.

I interviewed Warren in New York in January of 2010. Warren was not forthcoming with sending me recordings and other information because he was so incredibly busy performing with multiple bands. Prior to the interview, therefore, I had not been able to listen to a lot of his music; I was familiar, however, with his performances. He gave me only three or four albums when I left his apartment that winter afternoon.  In the back of mind, I did not feel prepared enough to write a comprehensive profile. This is what I believed AAJ demanded of me.  I emailed Kelman, the Senior Editor, and said to him that I wanted to submit my article to another publication; I did not support this action with any reasons.

It was not too long afterwards that Kelman responded, in one email saying ‘OK, see ya’ round,’ and, in the next, exclaiming that he and Michael Ricci had discussed and come to the conclusion that my submitting Warren’s profile  to another publication was unacceptable: no further submissions would be accepted from me by AAJ. I was for all intents and purposes: “fired.”

In the meantime, I inquired at The New York Jazz Messenger why I was not assigned all of the recordings which I had chosen. The editor told me that my writing was too difficult to edit so he did not bother assigning me anything; he just did not have the time to spend editing my work. I submitted my resignation to Laurence Donohue-Greene.  I was tired of fighting for $10 a pop.

It was down to JazzTimes.com and me. The editor shared no grievances with me about my reviews. We worked together well. He had a zillion more tasks to tackle rather than be bothered with me. He was happy with my personal, laid-back deadlines. I gave him lists of recordings I wanted to review and he gave his approval. He was always appreciative of what I did… as were the other editors. Each of the three has told me so. So I did not feel terrible when I let them know that I could no longer submit to them except that to which I had already committed. I could not submit to them because I was not paid. There was no prospect of being paid. And if I was going to do anything with music, I would do it for my blog.

I cannot penetrate the wall built by the writers who have created the Jazz Writing Business. I have knocked on the gates as many times and in as many ways as I can.

It has been heart-wrenching, anxiety-producing, satisfying, life-affirming and often wonderful to write about music. But I am done with everything except for what I do for my blog. Here, I am the boss.

I have no regrets, I bear no resentment. It is my intention to keep on writing about subjects that matter to me: music, art and life, for heaven’s sakes. Those who know me, really know me, will understand why I am taking these steps. Even though I will be narrowing the venue for publication of my words, I will broaden my scope for writing them. Pitching to myself as I always have. The rebounds will offer new means to catch and throw again.

copyright 2012 Lyn Horton

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers

I do not remember when exactly Wadada Leo Smith made clear that he wanted to have my art incorporated into the cover art for his landmark music piece, Ten Freedom Summers. It could have been after I had seen the premiere in Los Angeles in October of 2011 and had written so much about it both for JazzTimes.com and this blog. 

In any event, he requested that I send him some pictures of art that I had been working on. I selected some digital images at random to forward to him. And just as randomly it seems, Wadada selected what he thought corroborated with the "feelings" that he was trying to impart in his multi-part music statement.

After he picked certain pieces of my art, he said that he needed hi-resolution photos as soon as possible. I got right on it without really understanding the impact that his request would have on me. When I opened the email which contained the finished files of the booklet and cover that went with the recordings, my heart fluttered. The elegance of their portrayal in support of the absolute and total grandeur of the people and the events that Wadada had written about was stunning. I was beside myself with emotion and believed that this moment constituted one of the finest that my work had ever seen or would see.

Even though my work is now seen for how, during all these years since 1970, it has lived to be appreciated... alone and for itself...the realization that my art is associated with one of the defining moments of music and African-American history overwhelms me.

Is the Picture Big Enough?

Life poses many choices. I gotta pick something every now and again. Hopefully, the choice I make is the best one for the moment. But, how ...