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Guelph 2013: Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers moved from sorrow to triumph (review)

Wadada Leo Smith and his Golden Quartet played four suites from Ten Freedom Summers at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Wadada Leo Smith and the Golden Quartet
Ten Freedom Summers
Main Stage, River Run Centre
Guelph Jazz Festival
Saturday, September 7, 2013 – 8 p.m.

View photos of this concert

The story of the American civil rights movement is stirring, tragic, and full of hope. All those emotions are reflected in Wadada Leo Smith's massive and eloquent work, Ten Freedom Summers, part of which he performed at the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival.

And that took 90 very intense minutes. The full work takes three evenings to perform, and has been recorded on a four-CD set.

But even hearing only four of the pieces still gave the Guelph audience a feel for the beauty of this composition, and how potent it was in performance.

Ten Freedom Summers memorializes key moments in the history of civil rights in the United States, from 1954 to 1964. Its subjects range from Rosa Parks to Emmett Till, from President John F. Kennedy's New Frontier to Thurgood Marshall to Martin Luther King, Jr. It's a collection of suites; each stands alone, but they can be played together or in different combinations.

The day before the concert, Smith told an audience at the jazz festival's colloquium that he wrote the first suite in 1977. It was the story of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who was a big hero to blacks in Mississippi, where Smith grew up. He composed it in response to a request by jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins for a piece to perform at an Italian jazz festival, and it gave him the opportunity to explore themes which he had been ruminating about for several years.

And then, as he researched those events, he said he found that some of the most important speeches in the history of civil rights were improvised – relating right back to the type of music he had been playing for decades, within and outside the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) to which he and Jenkins both belonged.

In Martin Luther King's “I have a Dream” speech, “that moment of talking about the dream, that was not scored in his text either. That was all improvised.”

President Kennedy opened up the first presidential dialogue about race in America by giving a speech, Smith said, and “the significant thing about JFK's speech here is that the most important moments in his speech were all improvised. Four or five minutes of that speech were all improvised. They were originally not in the text.”

And then only 5 to 10 days after that speech, “Medgar Evers was shot to death in his home. He was shot to death as he stepped out of his car. His wife and kids were in the doorway waiting to greet him so they saw him fall. My piece about Medgar Evers is about just those micro-seconds that happened then. It's not the programmatic version of it. It's the psychological version of the impact of seeing this happen to your father and your husband and to a larger extent the black people in America.”

The remaining pieces in Ten Freedom Summers were written over the next three decades, finishing in June, 2011. The full work was premiered that October in Los Angeles by an ensemble including Smith's Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music.

The CD was recorded the next month and released in 2012. It was a 2013 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music; Smith was also named 2013 Composer of the Year in DownBeat Magazine's 61st Annual Critics Poll. The Jazz Journalists Association Awards also named him 2013 Musician of the Year and 2013 Trumpeter of the Year.

At the Saturday evening concert, the music was everything, with Smith only speaking at the end to introduce the performers. The four pieces the quartet played were also not introduced. OttawaJazzScene.ca confirmed later that they were:

  1. Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954
  2. Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada
  3. September 11th, 2001: A Memorial
  4. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy

Smith appeared with his Golden Quartet: Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass, and Anthony Brown on drums. They each had a large stack of sheet music on music stands in front of them.

They were accompanied by video artist Jesse Gilbert, who displayed frequently-changing, mostly abstract, images – inspired by the music and its concerns – on a screen behind the stage. I ended up mostly ignoring the visuals, finding them more distracting than anything else.

Thurgood Marshall was the lawyer who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to declare school segregation illegal, and who later became the first black justice on that court. Smith's tribute to Marshall's victory for equal education was a strongly dramatic piece, full of struggles and victories.

The music ebbed and flowed among all four musicians: Smith played several compelling trumpet solos, hard-edged at first, then jubilant. A slow, ominous bass solo contrasted with bright, luminous piano chords. The emotional energy only increased with an extended, accented bass solo before culminating with rippling piano and triumphant trumpet lines.

Light, thoughtful piano, sounding like a river running, marked the start of the next piece. It was a tribute to black leader Malcolm X (who later took on the name Malik el-Shabazz), and the musicians quickly built up the tension with ringing piano chords, a deep bass solo which included disquieting harmonics, and strong drumming with lots of cymbals. Smith's trumpet reentered, angry and a bit atonal, its strength and speed being echoed by the other instruments. Finally long, lonely trumpet lines closed the piece.

Both suites were beautifully modulated, filling the hall but never becoming overpowering.

After a brief break for applause, the remaining suites were played together. They were inspired by the September 11, 2001 tragedy, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis in 1968. The music started as a dirge, beginning sparsely and filling in with raw-edged trumpet and vibrating piano. A grumbling bowed bass filled in the space behind sustained piano notes, and then as the piano lightened, the trumpet reentered, continuing the melodic lament.

As the trumpet circled, the piano reentered with a deliberate, pointillist solo, which sped up into fast ripples of notes. The intensity increased with harsh trumpet and buzzing piano, followed by a vibrating bowed bass solo over sustained piano notes. A drum solo began with light scratches on the drumhead, then fuller textures, then thunderous slams, then very light cymbals, and ended with a flourish sounding like a military salute.

The music continued in this very intense mode, with each musician underscoring the others: Davis for example, playing variations on Smith's melodies. But they all added to the hymn-like ambiance, a requiem for the fallen that ended with long sustained notes on piano and trumpet.

After such a strong performance, it was no surprise that the audience quickly stood for an ovation and strongly applauded.

None of the suites which the quartet played was a documentary. While the music was influenced by the jazz tradition and the explorations of spirituality through jazz in the 60s, there was no obvious quoting of the music of that era. Rather, it was an impressionistic, emotional account of those times, richly detailed, with a large dynamic and textural range, and also with an inherent unity in each piece.

It was powerful, it moved from sorrow to triumph, and it left me – and I think the rest of the audience – feeling both uplifted and fulfilled.

    – Alayne McGregor

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Click any thumbnail to view a larger image.

Read more about the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival: