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 It is a historical document written throughout a single period of the African-American trumpeter’s conscious lifetime about the never-ending saga of the African-American people.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].

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