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:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 23, 2017
John Wight
Trump’s Inauguration: Hail Caesar!
Mark Schuller
So What am I Doing Here? Reflections on the Inauguration Day Protests
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Trump and Isis Have More in Common Than You Might Think
Binoy Kampmark
Ignored Ironies: Women, Protest and Donald Trump
Gregory Barrett
Flag, Cap and Screen: Hollywood’s Propaganda Machine
Gareth Porter
US Intervention in Syria? Not Under Trump
L. Ali Khan
Trump’s Holy War against Islam
Gary Leupp
An Al-Qaeda Attack in Mali:  Just Another Ripple of the Endless, Bogus “War on Terror”
Norman Pollack
America: Banana Republic? Far Worse
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
We Mourn, But We March!
Kim Nicolini
Trump Dump: One Woman March and Personal Shit as Political
William Hawes
We Are on Our Own Now
Martin Billheimer
Last Tango in Moscow
Colin Todhunter
Development and India: Why GM Mustard Really Matters
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s America—and Ours
David Mattson
Fog of Science II: Apples, Oranges and Grizzly Bear Numbers
Clancy Sigal
Who’s Up for This Long War?
Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail