Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers
Cuneiform Records

Ten Freedom Summers is remarkable on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start by noting that the wealth of music on its four hour-plus CDs was laid down in a mere three days; let's further note that the work's composer and lead soloist, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, is seventy years old, and that he plays on the tracks with the command and fortitude of someone half his age. Written over more than a thirty-year period, Ten Freedom Summers is, thematically and compositionally, an ambitious tribute to the civil rights movement that centers on the 1954-1964 decade (though it extends beyond that ten-year period, as evidenced by “September Eleventh, 2001: A Memorial”) and titles pieces after key figures such as Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King Jr. Modeled after August Wilson's ten-play series Pittsburgh Cycle and inspired by jazz recordings by Duke Ellington (Sacred Concerts) and Max Roach (Freedom Now), Ten Freedom Summers is a magnum opus that blends notated music and improvisation and integrates multiple idioms, chamber classical and avant-garde jazz among them, in the service of a bold and eloquently expressed vision. While many of the events that inspired it involved struggles with sometimes tragic outcomes, the work itself is ultimately triumphant in spirit.

The nineteen long-form works spread across the four CDs were laid down shortly after the music's October 2011 world premiere in Los Angeles. The recording's programme shows ample variety in featuring The Golden Quartet (Quintet when both drummers play) on certain tracks, the nine-member, LA-based contemporary classical group, Southwest Chamber Music (directed by conductor Jeff von der Schmidt) on others, and sometimes the two together. Presumably there was consideration given during the project's long creation as to whether spoken commentary would be included to elaborate on the events referenced in the track titles. The decision to present the work sans commentary proves to be the wiser choice in that the work isn't weighed down by the ponderousness that spoken text can impart; momentum can be compromised, too, when music gives way to text, so that's not an issue either.

The collection begins with the quintet's fiery rendering of “Dred Scott: 1857,” the musicians playing with a free-spirited abandon yet nevertheless displaying a remarkable degree of control. Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan akLaff naturally provide rich percussive accompaniment to the playing of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, and, of course, Smith, whose declamatory, clarion call resonates powerfully. His outfit plays with a kind of natural telepathy, and the music perpetuates the liberating spirit of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), which lists amongst its members Smith as well as Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Leroy Jenkins, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, among others (in fact, Smith composed Ten Freedom Summers' earliest piece, “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years Journey: Liberty and Justice,” for Jenkins in 1977). Naturally, the recording's discs cover an ample amount of ground; there's no shortage of aggressive fire music but a piece like “Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954” also finds the quintet digging into a deep, slow blues.

Ten Freedom Summers is a soundtrack of sorts to Smith's own life in that in conceiving the work's content he drew from the experiences that affected him as a youngster growing up in Mississippi. An event such as the brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 had a huge impact on Smith, especially when he was also fourteen when Till, after speaking with a young married white woman, was killed by the woman's husband and his half-brother, who then threw the body into the Tallahatchie River. On musical grounds, “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless” shows how effectively Smith integrates the two groups' musicians into a single unit. Projects involving the pairing of a chamber orchestra with a jazz group often end up a poor fit despite the good intentions of all involved. In Smith's case, however, ample space is worked into the compositional structure and consequently, rather than the piece in question buckling under the weight of so many players, it unfolds with the elegance and grace one associates with a small group. During “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless,” for instance, an extended middle section is given over exclusively to the Southwest Chamber Music's string players before the Golden Quartet re-appears, while the oft-mournful “Black Church” is scored for the chamber group's string players (violinists Shalini Vijayan and Lorenz Gamma, violist Jan Karlin, and cellist Peter Jacobson), thereby making it a work for string quartet. Still, many of the recording's most satisfying moments occur when Smith's group plays alone, as evidenced by the stunning interaction that carries on throughout the quartet's “Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days” and “The Freedom Riders Ride” and the quintet's “Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, an Act of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964” and “Democracy.” Such pieces allow the group to truly cut loose and display fluid interplay in its purest form (it's also where echoes of the late Lester Bowie can be heard in Smith's attack).

Obviously there's a huge amount of material to be digested, yet the recording amply rewards the investment of time and attention demanded by it. Though Smith considers the project one of his life's defining works, Ten Freedom Summers plays more like the grandest of culminations. No matter whatever else Smith has recorded or will record, it will likely be regarded as the defining statement of his life.

June 2012