Music

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers

A huge, unprecedented jazz/classical masterwork that will take over your life.


Wadada Leo Smith

Ten Freedom Summers

Label: Cuneiform
US Release Date: 2012-05-22
UK Release Date: 2012-05-21
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

All those descriptions of "monumental" make sense. Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers is first of all BIG: a four-disc 19-track monument to the Civil Rights movement, performed by the 70-year-old Smith on trumpet along with the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble and the latest incarnation of Smith's Golden Quartet (or Quintet, if two people are drumming). Whenever he can corral them all to perform the thing live, the concert lasts three nights and covers audiences with heaps of music: free improv, modal jazz grooves, and classical composition including (why not?) a string quartet movement. Though bracketed by tributes to Dred Scott and Martin Luther King, Jr., the work is so sprawling it can't even be constrained by its Civil Rights framework. Songs keep spilling off like free-associative ideas with ungainly titles: "Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press", "The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times", and so on. Monuments seek to overwhelm, and Freedom does its best.

Is there precedent in jazz for such a work? Cecil Taylor's box sets are even bigger, but they lack a connective framework beyond their performance scenarios. Wynton Marsalis has written extended works for large ensembles, notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, but unlike Marsalis, Smith refuses to put too fine a point on his ideas. Freedom forgoes singers, and you never catch it winking at the audience; there's no Marsalisian pastiche or cutesy humor here. Smith's music speaks with a statesman's seriousness. These pieces transform their subjects into musical invention and moods; they're not literal or programmatic. Freedom's closest forebears are contemporary classical pieces -- "Creative Music", the AACM veteran might say -- that invite meditation and make their points through abstraction.

This shouldn't imply that you need a music degree to enjoy it. More than anything, Freedom is about sound: the tangible, physically beautiful sounds of Smith's imperative trumpet and of different instruments in combination, testing their own limits. Most of the lengthy pieces are split into distinct sonic areas, with each area receiving the spotlight in turn. "The Freedom Riders Ride" (song 10, if you’re keeping track) builds from an uncertain opening, the Quartet scattered and thinking out loud, into a ravishing group improvisation. Anthony Davis's lush piano chords coexist with stripped-bare dissonances, and tempos shift according to some precise telepathy. Then, four minutes in, an ominous stop-start section tumbles into a blazing free walk, with trumpet, piano, bass and Susie Ibarra's drums all racing along in the sort of collective freedom that jazz exists to celebrate -- beautiful beautiful beautiful. But it doesn't last. Things fall apart, as things do, to focus on the different instruments -- sawing bass, skittering drums -- building until another fast walk ends the piece. If lightning-fast swing is the reason you turn to jazz, Freedom has plenty such passages, but its explorations of space and stillness are just as crucial.

Other indelible moments:

-- the fuguelike section in "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless", where strings, harp, and quartet enter bit by bit and swirl into cacophony;

-- in "Buzzsaw", an aggressive, mournful groove, the contrast of John Lindberg's bowed bass against propulsive piano, drums, and trumpet;

-- in "Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954" (whew!), the swinging bass groove that gradually disintegrates over the course of eight minutes;

-- the smearing, sliding strings of "Black Church (String Quartet No. 3)";

-- the times that recall Miles Davis's "In a Silent Way", with Smith's clear tone soaring over wobbly rhythm section drones, and sometimes fighting against them, in "America, Parts 1, 2 & 3" and "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days".

For all these and more, credit Smith's musicians and his compositional methods. Like many modern jazz and classical composers, Smith has developed his own system for organizing improv. He calls it "Ankhrasmation," a graphic notation that helps musicians coordinate their jumping-off points. While he doesn't seem to have used that system in Freedom, his goal is similar. Pre-ordained motives move inexorably to moments of spontaneous creation and back again. Even during the slow parts, when the music threatens to crawl to a stop or turn into a hazy Terence Blanchard score, violin and cello and trumpet hold their notes slightly out of tune, vibrato and dissonance beating with portent, and the effect is riveting. Every instrument pops; sound and silences pulse with vitality.

If Freedom resembles a monument, at least in my mind, it's the Gateway Arch in St. Louis -- "just a big piece of modern art on the bank of the river," a friend once affectionately described it. It's abstract and even austere, sure, but that only makes it more universally accessible. A short walk from the courthouse where Dred Scott sued for his freedom, the Arch embodies different shades of symbolic meaning. Depending on your sympathies, it can be a soul-stirring paean to Western expansion, a costly reminder of American imperialism, or a fun place to go on a field trip. All sorts of stuff, good and bad, baked into an inverted steel catenary. Freedom lacks the Arch's simplicity of line, but its takeaways are just as complex. It's never simply a celebration or a lament, a history lesson or a big piece of modern art. You don't have to choose, Smith seems to say; this music contains everything.

Freedom is even sort of shaped like the Arch; it climbs to a rarefied peak. The album's 24-minute centerpiece, "Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964", stretches austere abstraction to its limits, but it contains moments that rival Stravinsky's famous Rite chord for time-stopping sound, moments you could reach out, touch, crawl inside, and settle down with. It's quantum music theory: the strum of a harp contains the world. Live with this music long enough and it seeps into the rest of your life. These days I can't look at Robert Caro's massive LBJ biography, or even think about America's elongated battle over health care reform, without hearing the roiling timpani that define "Great Society", giving voice to slow-motion legislative wars in every age.

Monuments overwhelm, but they do so by speaking to us personally. Like visiting a sacred site or reading Tolstoy or Proust, listening to Freedom is an emotional and intellectual luxury, a chance to commune with greatness. Years after I'd taken my last field trip to the Arch, I graduated from school and moved back to St. Louis, for the first time living on my own in a cramped little apartment. One day I parked at the library and walked to the river, and as the Arch loomed before me I was overcome by emotion. Besides being a symbol of Western expansion, the Arch had become my expansion, at once my freedom and homecoming, my destiny tied to the country's destiny. Ten Freedom Summers speaks like a great civic monument. In four and a half hours, Wadada Leo Smith writes one of America's defining events in sound, and the story is all of ours.

10
Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of the Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he could shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means the brightest star in the power-pop universe has suddenly gone dim.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of the Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he could shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means the brightest star in the power-pop universe has suddenly gone dim.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.