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.