FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Struggle Composed, A Struggle Performed

by RON JACOBS

Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and composer. He has been writing and composing for over forty years, primarily in the avant garde jazz category. He was voted Composer of the Year in the 2013 DownBeat Critics poll. His mammoth work Ten Freedom Summers was voted the number two jazz album of the year in the same poll.

Ten Freedom Summers is, simply stated, a master work. Inspired by the history of the struggle for Black liberation in the United States, Wadada Leo Smith has created a musical testament to the people who devoted their lives to that struggle. Utilizing playwright August Wilson’s ten play cycle of dramas known alternately as the Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle as a template, Smith has composed a nineteen song cycle representing the history of the aforementioned struggle and the post-Civil War United States. In this particular recording, two different groups are featured: Southwest Chamber Music ensemble and the Golden Quartet/Quintet. Smith recently completed a tour of this work that featured different musical groupings. Smith is on record stating that the musical inspiration for Ten Freedom Summers comes directly from Max Roach’s recordings of the 1960s and 1970s and Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. The titles of the Roach works that inspired Smith include Freedom Now and Lift Every Voice and Sing. These were overtly political works by Roach and should be included in any history of African-American freedom songs. They are also masterpieces of the jazz genre. Listening to the music of Ten Freedom Summers, one is also reminded of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Darius Milhaud and a multitude of others.tfs cover

While writing this review a violinist friend of mine whose musical knowledge I often defer to disagreed with me as to whether this composition was jazz. As a musician who has performed in numerous ensembles (and played literally hundreds of compositions) over the years including symphonies, chamber orchestras, musical theater and busking on the street, it was her position that Smith’s endeavor tended more towards modern music in the strain of Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messaien and the rest of Les Six, Stravinsky, or even Arnold Schoenberg. This led to a discussion of avant-garde jazz and its relation to those composers. After forty-five minutes or so of the discussion, the only real conclusion we were able to reach is that this work, while influenced by both jazz and modern “classical” composers, transcended (and borrowed from) both forms. As my friend summarized, Ten Freedom Summers is a postmodern composition, featuring elements that cannot always be defined by standard terms. Furthermore, one assumes it sounds different almost every time it is performed. This particular CD set is but one such instance.

Wadada Leo Smith composed every piece in this collection to be complete in and of itself. Although the compositions thematically address a singular history, each and every piece can also be performed and listened to individually. Despite this, I listened to the entire four-disc set in one sitting. Once I began, I couldn’t stop. As I listened I found myself inside what can only be described as a dreamscape contrived within Smith’s creation. The journey I found myself on; no, the place I found myself inside was one that placed me within the history of a people’s battle to break their bonds and live a future without the strictures of racism. I heard the cries of Emmett Till as he was beat by white men and I saw the smiles of the freedom marchers finally able to vote. I felt the fists and chains of angry racists beating whites and Blacks disembarking from a Greyhound in Mississippi and I heard the Texas drawl of LBJ after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The angry righteous truths spoken by Malcolm X echo in a hall in New York City and the words of a dream evoked by the hopeful words of another prophet named Martin Luther King, Jr. resound across the National Mall. The fear and chaos of the overseer’s whip and the policeman’s nightstick resounds and echoes in this soundscape. The music features an uneasy dissonance that is both disturbing and darkly beautiful.

The piece devoted to antiracist pioneer Rosa Parks features Wadada Leo Smith’s trumpet sounding eerily reminiscent of Miles Davis on his In a Silent Way sessions. This is followed by a masterful set of chamber orchestra playing in which the influence of the twentieth century composers whose works forever changed Western music in the academy dominate. I felt as if I were wrapped within a sonic cloud designed by Igor Stravinsky and Les Six. At turns disturbing, ominous, and contemplative, the chamber music in this entire set reflects the joy, contemplation and dignity of the work. Furthermore, the tension between the instruments echoes that experienced by every participant in those struggles. At other times, the spirit and sonic thrill that defines free jazz resounds.

August Wilson ended his cycle of plays with the 1990s. By then, some members of Black America were relatively assimilated into the mainstream culture and economy. This created not only a greater gulf between the haves and the have-nots in Black America, it also added to a deepening spiritual malaise as the trappings of consumerism replaced the more meaningful struggle for identity and recognition. Wilson’s last drama, Radio Golf, reflected this alienation. Smith ends his collection with a meditation on Martin Luther King, Jr., thereby avoiding the future in which we currently exist.

I was overwhelmed when the final note of the last composition sounded. Words cannot even come close as an appropriate expression of my response. This attempt to explain what I heard in this short review does not even come close to my experience. It reminded me of my first time hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, John Coltrane’s Ascension, Sun Ra’s The Magic City or Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. I can only imagine what a live performance of Ten Freedom Summers might be like.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
Dave Lindorff
Honest Election System Needed to Defeat Ruling Elite
Louisa Willcox
Delisting Grizzly Bears to Save the Endangered Species Act?
Jason Holland
The Tragedy of Nothing
Jeffrey St. Clair
Revolution Reconsidered: a Fragment (Guest Starring Bernard Sanders in the Role of Robespierre)
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail