“The Music of Wadada Leo Smith has always been a voice of commitment. In fact he could be said not to have played music so much as preached about the condition of the African-American in his basal metabolic relationship with Black Africa in White America, but in an atomic sense he has also concerned himself with his relationship with God”
Feature by Raul da Gama
The voice of a committed artist—the only one worth considering—has always been one of protest against the ennui of the established order. Sometimes this voice is quiet, almost silent; at other times it is strident. Sometimes it speaks to the conscious mind—inside that right side of the brain which is given to logic—and at other times it speaks to the beating and the fibrillating soul, where it stirs the emotions into a powerful vortex. But when that voice speaks to both heart and mind; to both body and soul it does so usually out of a sense of spirituality that is driven by a much higher force; that force being God, who speaks as if through his instrument, the musician. Charles Mingus, one of the mightiest committed artists of his and probably all-time always attributed the making of his art to channelling the voice of God’s own Jazz. In the voice of composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith it is altogether possible to discern much of the same, for although his lungs and lips fill the mouthpiece and bell of his burnished horn, the creative impetus of his breath almost surely is born of his spiritual self; his music is made from a fire on a mountain and it flows as if it were a mystical river defining the ancient topography melody, harmony and rhythm. Yet, while it is a music of notes heard before, through Leo Smith’s spirit they shoot forth like altogether newly divined stellar objects given birth in space and time; singular notes and lines that meld fourths and eights, sixteenths and thirty-twos—spare and splendid in their isolation or glorious in the multiplicity of their various ensembles as they sing out from the promptings of the trumpeter’s heart and soul.
The Music of Wadada Leo Smith has always been a voice of commitment. In fact he could be said not to have played music so much as preached about the condition of the African-American in his basal metabolic relationship with Black Africa in White America, but in an atomic sense he has also concerned himself with his relationship with God. This is why the nuances of his music met where the idioms of jazz and blues before that and gospel in between all collided within the vortex of his heart mind and powerful lungs. But on Ten Freedom Summers there is urgency to it all. The energy on the four discs that make up the record causes the music tremor and shake like an earth-shattering quake and roar like an unbridled tsunami. This energy forces the whole body to reach to the music and to have the senses aroused from any possible numbness that can occur from the ritualistic beating of Pheeroan alLaff’s and Susie Ibarra’s drums. This comes in epic, thundering kicks at the bass drum and shattering swishes of a myriad cymbals whether the drummers play together or separately. Their monumental acts are supported by the mighty pizzicato of John Lindberg’s bass, which may also be played with humble contemplation, con arco. Together with these harmonic rhythmists, Anthony Davis manipulates as much as he plays his grand piano. In Davis’ hands this colossal keyboard is an instrument of many kinds: melodic, of course, but also rhythmic. Like an African-American with Cuban “tumbao” his left hand is loaded with thunder. The piano is also transmogrified into a giant lute, perhaps; a drum, an enormous violin employing monumental glissandi, extraordinary runs and arpeggios and harmony of a myriad of hues.
Yet there are many moments of quietude as well. Ten Freedom Summers is a journey that is contemplative too for it is an epic journey that traverses the rise of African-Americanism, from out of the residual dust of Gorée and that tragic journey across oceanic currents. As it draws its vigorous energy from Max Roach’s classic 1960 release, We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, the moments of contemplative harmonics featuring the Southwest Chamber Music and its stellar violinist, Shalini Vijayan, Wadada Leo Smith’s music also finds a spiritual union with the many souls that were raised up in Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts featuring, among others the soaring voice of Mahalia Jackson. Here Leo Smith has also superbly melded the voices of the chamber music ensemble and spliced these with his own trumpet, Davis’ piano and especially, the gorgeous, aching con arco passages of Lindberg’s great bass violin.
But history is not merely made with this record of epic proportions; historicity is employed in Leo Smith’s referencing of events that turned the tide of the relationship between the African-American and the White man from the days of slavery right through Dr. Martin Luther’s great march on Washington; It also references August’s Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of ten plays, one set in every decade of the 20th century, from 1900 to 1990. In the innards of the music, where the thunderous events Brown v Board of Education rattle like proverbial skeletons in the cupboard of the American constitution Leo Smith’s trumpet complains mightily, crying out against the pathetic forms of racism that came from segregation. These and other incidents provoke the most majestic and elementally sorrowful music, which in turn is played by the violin of Shalini Vijayan, especially in the sequence entitled “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society And The Civil Rights Act Of 1964”.The authoritative intervention of Lindberg’s “papal” bull increases the dramatic energy of the music from its wailing to its echoes of authoritarianism.
However, to avoid the episodic device that is as corrupt as structure of a television soap opera, Smith has focussed his music on three aspects of societal history: The first became “Defining Moments in America”; the second took a deep and spiritual look at “What is Democracy” and finally there was the decadency of the “Ten Freedom Summers”. Here is where the quick and the dead of history and music collide; where the guts and glory of Wadada Leo Smith’s music lies. No longer is it a cursorily constructed musical edifice. There is phenomenal detail in his musical architecture. The Dred Scott incident of 1857, when Scott, a slave, unsuccessfully sued for freedom from the wife of his late master is dealt with all the dramaturgy of a Sophoclean epic. The hidden musical swing mimics the sadness of the to-ing and fro-ing of Scott as he fights mightily to break the bonds between him and his family and Irene Sandford the wife of the late Dr. Emerson to establish his own citizenship on America. But he failed and they tragedy is captured in cathartic terms by Leo Smith and his ensemble.
Rolling down history Leo Smith uses the extraordinary small quartet with akLaff on percussion, to drum up the near murderous situation of Rosa Parks, while the trumpeter wails mightily. This is immediately followed by “Black Church,” where the holly-rolling would heal the hurt and the unjustly treated, and where they would write and compose hymns to sing on the street when they took their protests outside. Wadada Leo Smith is at his finest here as he raises the temperature of his horn by altering his embouchure recall the elemental ache of the physically and emotionally broken bodies. Leo Smith’s plaintive voice crowns the martyrdom of the African American freedom fighter, Medgar Evers. His depiction of Evers’ life is altogether less strident than Abbey Lincoln’s Max Roaches were on We Insist: Freedom Now Suite but the force of his spiritual efforts surely rival those of Max Roach and his ensemble of 1960.
Yet this record would have been just another recorded document—like Gil Scott-Heron to The Last Poets and to many others through time—that avers pouring scorn on and ultimately living in the past like angry Uncle Toms, who have de-clawed and de boned and live as if they were in a hospice. On the contrary, Wadada Leo Smith examines the “Freedom Summers” as he calls to mind the question of the real meaning of Democracy—far from the political platitude that it has become at the hands of global hegemony. Here Leo Smith raises the human sacrifice of 9-11 and its impossible sacrifice to Freedom. It is in this incident that the magic of the music comes full circle. No longer does it remain an African-American document, but an American document that is spoken, albeit in the idiom of jazz and blues, but with the indulgence in the meters of European church music melded into the music of the herdsmen of the African Savannah, Leo Smith turns his modern epic into an monumental musical examination into the matter of respect and love and joy for all of humanity, African-American idioms melt into Human Rights, affecting also the Native American and those men and women who are bound and gagged in societies where the great American Ideals of Freedom and Democracy might spread; this when human rights are dealt with justly and equally when more men and women are inspired by the colossal cry for freedom and dignity of Wadada Leo Smith and the two ensembles who sing with him on these epic recordings.
Tracks: CD 1: Dred Scott, 1857; Malik Al Shabazz And The People Of The Shahada; Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless; Thurgood Marshall And Brown Vs. Board Of Education: A Dream Of Equal Education, 1954; John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier And The Space Age, 1960. CD 2: Rosa Parks And The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days; Black Church; Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts Of Compassion And Empowerment, 1964; Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society And The Civil Rights Act Of 1964. CD 3: The Freedom Riders Ride; Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice Of A Thousand Years’ Journey For Liberty And Justice; The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial For All Times; Buzzsaw: The Myth Of A Free Press; The Little Rock Nine: A Force For Desegregation In Education, 1957. CD 4: America, Pts. 1, 2 & 3; September 11th, 2001: A Memorial; Fannie Lou Hamer And The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964; Democracy; Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy.
Personnel: Golden Quartet/Quintet: Wadada Leo Smith: composer, trumpet; Anthony Davis: piano; John Lindberg: bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums; Susie Ibarra: drums. Southwest Chamber Music: Jeff von der Schmidt: conductor; Alison Bjorkedal: harp; Jim Foschia: clarinet; Lorenz Gamma: violin; Peter Jacobson: cello; Larry Kaplan: flute; John Karlin: viola; Tom Peters: bass; Lynn Vartan: percussion; Shalini Vijayan: violin.
Wadada Leo Smith – Official Website: www.wadadaleosmith.com
Label: Cuneiform Records
Release date: May 2012
Feature article by: Raul da Gama