A Struggle Composed, A Struggle Performed
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.
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: email@example.com.