Facts first: Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform) is a suite, an enthralling, emotionally charged through-composed work for a chamber ensemble that incorporates the improvisational skills of a jazz quintet. The 19 compositions that comprise this single cohesive body of work were written over a 34-year period, but recorded (by the two ensembles in five discreet combinations) in just three days. The results are presented here on four CDs that, if heard in one sitting, will occupy four and a half hours of your close attention. Only one track, “Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada”, is shorter than nine minutes, the others anything up to 22 minutes.
The ensembles are Smith’s Golden Quintet, with Anthony Davis piano, John Lindberg bass, and Susie Ibarra and/or Pheeroan akLaaf drums; and Southwest Chamber Music, whose members play harp, clarinet, violins, cello, flute, viola, bass, and percussion. The quintet plays on seven tracks and Southwest on four, while akLaaf and Ibarra split drum duties on five quartet numbers. Finally, the quartet with Ibarra and Southwest combine forces three times.
It’s worth noting that akLaaf played in the late 80s Henry Threadgill Sextett, while a decade later Ibarra was a key member of the David S. Ware Quartet. Traces of both of those great ensembles are discernible in the playing of the Golden Quintet.
Remarkably, the changes in instrumentation do very little to change the overall sound and feel of the music, which makes the most powerful argument for jazz as black America’s classical music that I have ever heard. But it would be a nonsense to consign this music to any particular genre; its sensitivities are those shared by jazz, ‘classical’ and third stream traditions alike, forging something new from the most modern synthesis of historical perspectives and approaches.
If this all sounds a bit heavy, then sure, this isn’t music to be taken lightly. It is demanding. I have only managed two end-to-end playbacks. The suite has been presented in concert over three nights, which seems about right, though the division into three “primary collections” is noted but not detailed in the booklet accompanying the CDs.
I enjoy Ten Freedom Summers best taken track-by-track, when I have time to give myself over to it (as Smith says: “Each composition…is complete and stands on its own”). Then it is thrilling, emotive, and evocative. It is also open to interpretation, up to a point. There are lengthy titles assigned to most of the compositions (for example, “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964”), but no lyrics or libretto. So yes, this music is less open to interpretation that, say, John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, which may or may not have been written in response to the 1963 church bombing by the Ku Klux Klan, but it isn’t (unlike Wynton Marsalis’ three-and-a-half-hour, Pulitzer-prize winning jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields) at all didactic. It says, simply and effectively: Here are some reminders of milestones in the history of black America; think on them.
Consider the following quotation, taken from an in-depth interview Smith gave last year to Frank A. Matzner for All About Jazz:
“When I think about the civil rights movement or any other political issue in our society I look at the psychological impact of those issues and ideas. And in my music that is what I am trying to translate…Not the actual event itself, but the psychological impact that event has in society.”
Max Roach’s political albums such as We Insist! Freedom Now Suite must have been a big influence on both Blood on the Fields and (as Smith has acknowledged) Ten Freedom Summers. In its power, clarity and breadth of ambition, Smith’s work is the one to expand most powerfully upon it. He also drew inspiration (“I modelled my work after his”) from the Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays by another Pulitzer winner, August Wilson; and that’s telling.
In an interview for the Paris Review, Wilson said:
“I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics. Here in America whites have a particular view of blacks. I think my plays offer them a different way to look at black Americans,” while: “Blacks see the content of their lives being elevated into art. They don’t always know that it is possible, and it’s important for them to know that.”
Those words also seem to speak for Smith.
There’s so much to absorb here, I haven’t had anything like enough time to do so to attempt to describe the intricacies of the music. Suffice to say, the rigorous but subtly-hued contemporary classical music of Ten Freedom Summers is a far cry from the electric avant-funk of Smith’s Organic ensemble, the vigorously conversational Mbira, or even the more experimental work for chamber instrumentations he’s recorded for Tzadik. Yet it contains some of his most effecting solo statements, and much else of beauty and searing intensity besides.
Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira - Dark Lady of the Sonnets