Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the four hours plus of music that constitutes Ten Freedom Summers is not only trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith’s magnum opus, it is also a major artistic statement drawing together history, sociology, politics and music. Inspired by the history of the Civil Rights movement in the USA, but also incorporating the assassination of John F Kennedy and the tragic events of 9/11, Ten Freedom Summers is an ongoing project to translate the human experience into art.
It feels particularly timely that the work is being performed in London now, not just because it is part of the London Jazz Festival or because of the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. As Smith reminded us in his closing speech at the end of the second night, “many of these problems have not been solved”, and on the same day, a group of women were rescued from decades of slavery right in the heart of London. Whilst Smith’s colossal suite looks back at key Civil Rights figures (Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Dred Scott), he also looks very much to the here and now as well. The music, intense and powerful, is not just a reminder of the roots of jazz and improvised music, but a fearless, contemporary clarion call against complacency and inertia.
With three ‘collections’ performed over three nights, and accompanied by the striking images crafted by visual artist Jesse Gilbert (combining black and white photographic images from the history of the Civil Rights movement with visual effects and live images of the musicians at work), this event is a triumph of staging and programming for the outstanding venue Cafe OTO, perhaps now the best venue in London. Smith has been a regular at OTO in recent years, mainly as a visiting musician collaborating with British improvisers, but this is the first time one of his own core projects has been staged in London.
Working with a slightly reduced ensemble in comparison with the group assembled for the recordings, the event saw Smith perform with his remarkable Golden Quartet (Smith on trumpet, Anthony Brown on drums, Anthony Davis on piano and John Lindberg on bass) and also with the London-based Ligeti Quartet (Mandira de Saram on violin, Patrick Dawkins on violin, Richard Jones on viola and Ben Davis on Cello). Smith’s compositional methods seem more based on direction and guidance than on predetermined rigour – so some of the abundant pleasures in watching these performances come from watching him conduct and direct the string players and his own rhythm section. He can call for particular chords, clusters or effects, and often seems alert to the importance of nuanced dynamics and textures. The Golden Quartet are agile and adept musicians, often providing the perfect foil for Smith’s striking and spare trumpet lines. Although he plays in a somewhat hunched posture, Smith remains a supremely physical, imposing and interactive bandleader. Throughout, there is a feel of organised spontaneity. This helps prevent the lengthy two hour plus sets from dragging or becoming too overwhelming.
Whilst Smith’s approach leads to some similarities in sound and feel between the three nights, each collection also maintained an individual character. The first night sets the scene with tempestuous sheets of sound from the Golden Quartet. It also defines the ongoing nature of the project by introducing That Sunday Morning, a new and impressive composition that complements the existing work. What is immediately striking about the group’s performance is the extraordinary dynamics of the ensemble, which can move from a whisper to an explosion without any prior warning. Whilst the musicians take great care to keep their eyes on Smith at all times, they also seem to be instigators in their own right, making intelligent moves of their own to shift the gears of the music. They are also unafraid of the occasional deep, meditative and repetitive groove, and even swing righteously too when required to do so, with bassist John Lindburg serving as a resonant, steadfast anchor.
The second night achieves the most effective integration of strings and jazz ensemble (one possible drawback of this music is that the two are too often kept as separate entities responding to each other). The occasional jarring dissonance of Smith’s string writing helps to amplify the music’s inherent tensions, and when the band and string section finally unify, the result is a densely layered but also vibrant and satisfying sound. Smith’s spur of the moment decision to reprise the previous night’s That Sunday Morning seems to throw the entire band (pianist Anthony Davis swears audibly when he realises he has gone to the wrong page in the music), but even this unusual moment of confusion cannot dilute a performance of feverish intensity and thought-provoking power.
The two ensembles are most distant from each other on the final night, which leaves for a slightly unusual resolution (the Ligeti quartet first performs a long string movement before sitting patiently for a good hour or more while Smith’s group responds). Perhaps this is simply another sign of this project’s continuing evolution. Still, this night contained plenty to admire and enjoy – not least John Lindburg’s gloriously unconventional and percussive approach to bass playing, which incorporated not just the body of the instrument, but at times an almost contemporary-rock kind of strum against the strings. The ingenious attack and sparring beat placement of the two Anthonys is also striking, and the music seems to sustain a constant state of real time innovation and transition, even when locked in a relatively conventional groove.
Throughout the three nights, Smith comes across as a politically engaged (although on perilous ground when hinting at a 9/11 conspiracy) and restless musician. The music threatens to become overwhelming at times, not least when at its most anguished and brutal. Yet there’s also a strong sense of joy and defiance at its heart too, virtues of much of the very best jazz composition and performance – and Smith’s music deserves to be considered alongside the greats.