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Wadada Leo Smith - Ten Freedom Summers

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Artist: Wadada Leo Smith

Album: Ten Freedom Summers

Label: Cuneiform

Review date: Nov. 9, 2012

“He treats everyone and everything with total respect and has no tolerance whatsoever for anyone or anything that disrespects the art on any level.” ~ Larry Ochs

That evaluation from the estimable Bay-area multi-reedist and ROVA Saxophone Quartet co-leader cuts to the crux of Wadada Leo Smith’s redoubtable appeal. Smith’s been a composer and improvising musician for going on six decades with a prolific discography to prove it. His projects -- from grandly ambitious to intimately small -- get green lit with startling regularity. That kind of near-blind trust on the part of labels, funding institutions, colleagues and audiences is a rarity in any region of music, especially of the improvised sort. Even his rare artistic misses uphold an underlying integrity about them. A recital with Vijay Iyer this past spring at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, with Iyer presiding over a battery of electronics instead of his customary keyboard, fell flatter than a pancake to these ears, but Smith’s minimalist trumpet still carried off some interesting runs within the context, making the meeting a salvageable one.

Respect is evident in abundance throughout Ten Freedom Summers, another voluminous outpouring of Smith’s aesthetic and a project that is at once daunting and immersive. Four discs and over five hours of music comprise 19 pieces composed over the span of 34 years (cue pre-emptory salute to those few brave souls who tackle it all in a single sitting). Smith deploys two basic frameworks to bring his variegated scores from page to ear: his Golden Quartet/Quintet, with long-standing colleagues pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan akLaff joining comparative newcomer to the fold Susie Ibarra, and the eight-piece Southwest Chamber Music Ensemble (strings augmented by percussion, bass/clarinet and flute) led by Jeff von der Schmidt. Pieces alternate between the two groups, with several mustering their combined forces. Smith sits out on those that fall solely under the purview of the SCME, like “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960,” which closes out the first disc’s final 20-plus minutes in a sweeping aural tribute to enduring optimism and possibility as personified by the 35th President of the United States, and “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey For Liberty and Justice,” which expands on the fantastical dedicatory imagery of its title with vibrant tone colors and textures from vigorously swirling strings and perspicacious flute.

Smith spells out the portraits and ideas being painted in sound with explicit titles that reference other milestones in the American Civil Rights struggle. The compositional order isn’t strictly chronological, and some of the subjects are more abstract than specific, like “Black Church” and “Democracy.” The first subverts expectations of overt religious aspects as a bracing chamber piece with, by turns, lush and biting string orchestrations, contrapuntal constructions and sharp pitch juxtapositions. “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless” is among the most effective at creating and sustaining a cinema-like scope and arc, translating the tale of the Till tragedy through a spectrum of aural emotions from youthful brio through harrowing apprehension and ultimately poignant sorrow. The strings, bolstered by the prominent placement of Lindberg and cellist Peter Jacobson, are instrumental, sustaining broad emotional weight across the nearly third-of-an-hour expanse. So much transpires that describing the labyrinthine schematics of each piece swiftly becomes an exercise in enervating explication ill at odds with an economically-minded review.

Long-form pieces have been a part Smith’s Golden Quartet repertoire dating back decades, and even with the compact instrumentation, the band easily fills the lengthy and challenging spaces with galvanizing interplay. It’s particularly satisfying to hear so much from Ibarra, whose presence in these sorts of contexts, at least on record, has been comparatively scarce for awhile. The five pieces where she teams with akLaff to power the ensemble benefit greatly from tandem rhythmic attack. Smith’s own playing is as razor-focused and regal as ever, moving from stentorian salvos to intricate muted passages and covering the full brass spectrum in-between with persistent stamina and creativity. His role is one of equal-footing ensemble participant rather than that of dominant alpha-male leader, a Zen-like temperament that carries over into the natural ebb and flow of the compositions. Once again it comes down to respect -- for the material, for his colleagues and for his listeners. With this encyclopedic set, Smith delivers yet another convincing musical document for his consideration as one of the most accomplished composers/bandleaders currently working in creative improvised music.

By Derek Taylor

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