Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Wadada Leo Smith Golden Quintet                                                                       ©2012 Martin Morissette

If one had to answer quickly what work will matter most this year in American music (as if matters of mattering arose with some regularity), Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers would trip readily to the tongue. The four and a half-hour collection of pieces inspired by the African-American Civil Rights Movement does more than music is usually asked to do, responding to and representing great currents in history. It does so not by merely lapsing into the programmatic but by forging new connections. There is much music that commemorates and much that is spontaneous. What may be most significant about Ten Freedom Summers is not that it is both commemorative and spontaneous, but that it manages to be both – sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously – with an absolute urgency.

Ten Freedom Summers is a collection of 19 pieces. Although there are pieces that stretch back to the pre-Civil War case of Dred Scott and forward to memorialize September 11, 2001, the work is concentrated on a ten year period, from Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Many of the figures represented suggest a martyrology, from the youth Emmett Till tortured and murdered to the assassinated leaders of the movement, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy. There are also pieces paying tribute to breakthrough events and abstractions, from “The Freedom Riders’ Ride” to “Democracy.”

The complete work for Smith’s Golden Quartet/Quintet (with pianist Anthony Davis and bassist John Lindberg; the quintet has both Pheroan AkLaff and Susie Ibarra on drums; the quartet has one or the other) and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music directed by Jeff von der Schmidt premiered in October 2011 in Los Angeles. On May 19, Smith debuted a portable version of the work at the Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV), and on May 22, Cuneiform released the four-CD set of the complete work recorded last November, shortly after the Los Angeles premier.

Although Smith insists it’s a collection of individual pieces (the work began in 1977 with a commission from Leroy Jenkins dedicated to Medgar Evers), it is unified by its intensity, by the continuity of Smith’s compositional methods, and by the particular stylistic language developed both within Smith’s own band and in his decade of working with Southwest Chamber Music.

As Smith talks at the FIMAV press conference, you get a sense of the way he sees history as itself akin to a process of composition. He mentions the speech by John F. Kennedy in which the president deviated from plan to address the issue of civil rights. Within minutes of the speech ending, Medgar Evers was shot in his home. Smith mentions, too, Martin Luther King’s great verbal improvisation on history the day before his assassination in Memphis.

In a sense, the power of Ten Freedom Summers comes from this perception of history as itself a mode of consciousness, not simply something imposed on events but events organizing themselves for maximum meaning and dramatic impact. Smith’s compositional intent is to represent a critical psychological moment. At FIMAV he repeatedly emphasized his compositional interest in representing the psychological moment for one of his figures, and that, too, may be a key to the way in which this work develops meaning. Each piece of Ten Freedom Summers is a becoming with a moment of history, a sense not of reconstruction but of Smith’s empathy and exchange of meaning and his acute sense of specific moments, each of which becomes saturated with history’s meaning, and the moment in which that instant might be recovered, reconstructed, known.

Ten Freedom Summers is also a testament to the history of Smith’s own formative years in the midst of the struggle for African-American civil rights, the world from his early teens to his early twenties. Smith recently turned 70, and the figures to whom he pays tribute are the living, breathing heroes and martyrs of his youth. Smith was born within a few months of Emmett Till, in Mississippi, the state where Emmett Till would be tortured and murdered at 14, and Smith would eventually live in the city, Chicago, where Till had grown up.

Ten Freedom Summers uses the languages of jazz, free improvisation, formal notation, and Smith’s own method of rhythmic organization, combining all of these discourses in a great commemoration of the heroes and events of the era. More than a monument, it’s a revisioning of the internal dynamic of the civil rights movement and its relationship to music.

 

Ten Freedom Summers: The Recording

The complete Ten Freedom Summers, as represented by the Cuneiform recording (Rune 350/351/352/353) is genuinely epic. The 19 pieces are played by Smith’s Quartet or Quintet or by Southwest Chamber Music or by Southwest Chamber Music and the Quartet (with Susie Ibarra). While Smith represents the pieces as individual works – rather than the interconnected parts of a suite – the works are tied together by far more than their subject matter, methodology and gravity. Of the 19 pieces, the chamber orchestra appears on seven, three alone and with the quartet on three and with Smith as soloist on one. That might suggest a secondary role for the orchestra, but that’s not the case. Their pieces are generally the longest and they’re present for over two hours of the CDs.

It might be convenient to describe the music of the quartet/quintet as tumultuous and celebratory, the through-composed music of the chamber ensemble as pensive, reflective and ceremonial. If at times such distinctions are possible, they ultimately break down in all the overlapping methodologies and moods of the different ensembles.  The opening quartet pieces use tremolos from John Lindberg and Anthony Davis that pre-figure the sustained tremolos that will arise in the chamber ensemble several pieces later. The tension curves that mark the quintet’s music are just as strong in the orchestra writing. The great ceremonial drumming of AkLaff and Ibarra – drum rolls and cymbal crashes and thunderous melody – has its double in the martial tympani line of “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960.” The grandeur of Smith’s trumpet line on “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 days”  is recalled in the orchestra’s “Black Church,” the strings there creating a beautifully dissonant transformation of blues, the tremolos here a subtle mutation of blues techniques extended to string ensemble writing.

The chamber group is never window-dressing for the quartet, but together or alone, it’s an essential part of Smith’s music. More than even a timbral extension, it’s a kind of double, an almost internal voice brought to musical life. Immersing oneself in the recording, some of the traditional expectations drop away. The orchestra writing sounds as “natural” – as intimate, as vernacular, as the group dialogues. While it is more architectural in its momentary presentation of itself, more given to decisive shifts in viewpoint, it is perhaps less dramatically structured, less given to the fanfares and blasts that are the specific language of Smith the trumpeter.

While it may be absurd to discuss the degree to which a music is “social,” Smith’s quartet performances here and the chamber writing represent different methodologies and relationships that come together to make Ten Freedom Summers the extraordinary creation that it is.

The notion of social dialogue keeps arising as a structural possibility of this music. On one hand, the chamber music operates as a social extension of the improvising jazz group. At times representing a relatively fixed set of relationships, the chamber ensemble also mirrors and extends and becomes a kind of social order.

Conversely, it also seems to express an inner condition, an elaborated and personal statement that first asserts a completed order that is then broken down, explored and reassembled in the social process of the group, ritualizing social relations at the same time that they are tested. There is something about the physical in the act of improvisation (something of the body in the near-funk of the bass ostinato in “Thurgood Marshall”) that is evident in the materials for the chamber ensemble, that are at times purely cerebral reflection, as in the unison of  “John F. Kennedy.”

While the chamber orchestra pieces often use solo voices, they are usually in Smith’s voice, almost testament to the persistence of the self in the midst of these social engagements (reflective, perhaps, of the persistence of personality celebrated in a work that necessarily frequently commemorates victims of violence).

 

Live at FIMAV

For the Golden Quintet performance at Victoriaville, Smith played a selection of seven pieces, choosing representative pieces from each of the work’s three collections: Defining Moments in America, What Is Democracy? and Freedom Summers. The quintet was accompanied by streaming computer video by Jesse Gilbert, who combined a live feed of the band’s performance with washes of moving abstract patterns and a still-photo montage of portraits of subjects and news images of events. The presence of images of Till, King and Malcolm insisted on the gravity and also the immediacy of the work, and the group’s commemorative silences at both the concert’s outset and between segments heightened the cumulative impact of the visuals and the music.

The performance maintained the original shape, beginning with “Dred Scott, 1857.” Without the presence of the chamber orchestra, one became more aware of the intensely orchestral make-up of the Golden Quintet, of its adeptness at collective dialogue and its skill in enhancing Smith’s power as a trumpeter. In Ten Freedom Summers, he has achieved the oracular.

On “Dred Scott,” he moved from brash brass blasts of alarm amid the sudden rising drama to anthemic pose and on to sudden braying derision. On “Malik Al Shabbaz” his Harmon-muted trumpet created a mood of somber reverie amid Ibarra’s cymbal washes and Lindberg’s grave bowed bass. “Emmett Till” was an immoveable block of melody.

The music was never simply oratorical, for every moment had a substructure of rhythmic detail as organizing and sustaining principle, the patterns of AkLaff and Ibarra animating the music’s breadth: Lindberg sounded like a string orchestra unto himself while Anthony Davis contributed an harmonic palette of Ellingtonian richness. On “Martin Luther King,” the group achieved the expansive religious vision – the liturgical mass (pun accepted) – of late Coltrane.

 

The Movement and Music’s Motion

Once one looks at the history of jazz and the movement for African-American civil rights, it’s hard to ever separate them. As I first listened to the Cuneiform set, I reflected on how the great era of modern jazz invention runs simultaneously with the time stream of the movement. Whether it’s Dizzy Gillespie adding the chant “Never Go Back to Georgia” to “Manteca,” Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons explicitly integrating elements of blues and Gospel with the harmonic mobility of modern jazz, or the rise of the jazz march (a pattern running through compositions by Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter and Anthony Braxton), the connection between modern jazz and the march to freedom is explicit. (Later in conversation, Smith places the association much further back, pointing to the Niagara Conference of 1905 [convened by W.E.B. Du Bois, it led directly to the formation of the NAACP] and the near-simultaneous first appearances of the walking bass and the stride left-hand in the music of Scott Joplin – it’s the direct connection between the movement and the modes of mobility in the music.)

There is, of course, far more: there is, one might almost want to say, everything else. From the concert-hall clothing and musical decorum of the Modern Jazz Quartet (the rubato of “Django” and the appropriation of the measured dance-steps of Bach) and the cultural integration and ambition of third stream music to the explicit protests of Charles Mingus and Max Roach (from the launching of the independently-owned Debut to music like Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song [It’s that excision in the original Haitian flag – that removal of the white stripe from the French tricouleur that’s celebrated on Haitian flag day], “Original Faubus Fables” [and all the politicians who could not be named on a Columbia record, the fear perhaps that it might cut into the sales of modern jazz records to white supremacists] and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady with its “Group and Solo Dance: Love, Pain and Passioned Revolt, then Farewell, my Beloved, Til It’s Freedom Day” and Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now and Speak, Brother, Speak). It is the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement that gives special significance to impulses as diverse as Cannonball Adderley’s explanation of “Dis Here” to a San Francisco bar audience and the exalted sorrow of Coltrane’s “Alabama.”

One might even go so far as to tie the creative impulse in jazz to the civil-rights movement. At one stage John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy were famously pilloried by a Caucasian jazz critic as “anti-jazz,” one of the last unequivocal statements of proprietorship over the music. It might have been more just and rational to accuse Coltrane and Dolphy of “anti-minstrelsy.”

There are, of course, sub-themes in there, and that the notion of freedom in jazz became a kind of internalized aesthetic debate throughout the years of the movement is germane. One might look as well at the status of Black church music in jazz from the mid-fifties to the late-sixties, just as it had moved into Rhythm and Blues in the mid-50s in the music of figures as popular (and as initially controversial) as Ray Charles and James Brown. The role of the church in the civil-rights movement is paralleled in music from Silver’s “The Preacher” to Albert Ayler’s recording of “Down by the Riverside.” In many ways the central historical current in jazz seemed to have run its course by the end of the sixties, perhaps in Ayler’s fusion of opposites in the meeting of gospel and anarchy.

It may be that Wadada Leo Smith is simply commemorating the central historical movement of his life, but he has also done something else: he has restored modern jazz (by whatever name one might wish to call it) – for one singular piece – to its central narrative. Listening to Ten Freedom Summers, one can ask what jazz is about and receive an unequivocal answer. Ten Freedom Summers does not simply arise in a very specific context: it provides a context for so much that goes before it. It does not return to third stream music but makes explicit that third stream music has been a dominant creative ideal for the past sixty years – universal accessibility to musical language.

 

From the FIMAV press conference, May 19, 2012

Stuart Broomer: I wonder if there are specific ways that you choose your compositional materials for each of the different personalities that you represent?

Wadada Leo Smith: Yes, essentially, I’ve broken the music down into what I call the basic essentials. If you look at one of my scores, you very rarely will find a lot of kind of configurations that are that precise, that say, go like BAH BA BA BAH BA BA BAH DA, you won’t find that. But let’s say, bah ba da ba ba bah da ba ba da, but you will find eight notes there. And those eight notes may have a bracket over, and they will all be not stemmed and not configured, but just simply notes there, and it may have a bracket over that says eight and one. And so that means that, I’ve written it so that it’s basically broken down to long notes and short notes with spaces. So, if I give it to Pheeroan and I give it to John Lindberg, and I give it to Jesse Gilbert, and I give it to Susie, and give it to Anthony Davis, that’s five or six people that’ve got that same eight notes – black notes, so they’re short – and they can make it any kind of way that they feel like it can be made.

There is of course the possibility that it can hang over too long, on one side or the other, but the medium of rehearsal is a zone in which everything is made. So we feel that, that little moment, each of us in our own way, and we come up with a consensus as to how it should be played as a group of people. Okay, without saying “how do you think it should be played?” or “how do you think it should be?” or “how do you?” No, because through the activity of playing it we feel like we get a consensus on how it should be played, okay. So rather than design something that is going to specifically touch say the mercury character of one of the players, I fix it so that their mercury can be introduced into the piece.

With this music here, because I had the classical players that were also involved, I did use a lot of configurations, but still it’s written in the exact same way it would be written for the quintet. And also, when there’s no absolute reality that you have to metrically end up at the same point, or start at the same point, it allows everybody to construct their music based off of how they personally feel about it. So that’s the key for me: that I’ll allow that opportunity for the person to put their input in, as to how that figure should be played or that piece should be played, but within the context of success or failure as to how the group consensus works.

SB: I’m interested in the process in which you give that much freedom to the chamber players...

WLS: We rehearsed from morning to night and the chamber ensemble has been playing my music for ten years. They started out with my string quartets (I have nine of them now), and then they started playing different kinds of pieces, pieces for flute, pieces for guitar and flute, guitar and string quartet, and just last year, 2011, they presented a complete program of all of my music which consisted of five compositions with various combinations, with as many as twelve players within their comfort zone since they had played it before.

SB: It seems you’re dealing with roughly a sixty-year old historical issue of third stream music, where you’re still dealing with those two languages of music and you’re finding new ways to put those together.

WLS: Well just like I was talking about those eight notes they have the same kind of eight notes and can also put their personality in it. The only time they have to be more connected is in “JFK.” When I do “JFK,” all of the string music that’s played together as a string unit, is all in unison, and all the other music is different. But the string players, because of the way that it’s notated, it is not notated with a pause or anything like that, they have to figure out how it sounds, and through rehearsal they again come closer to it, and usually I’m there to rehearse to safeguard the journey a little bit.

But I might say this, in “LBJ,” Shalini Vijayan, the violinist, that woman improvises. And it’s impressive, and it’s as good as anybody that plays the violin. And Peter Jacobson, the cellist coming after John Lindberg on “Emmett Till,” he plays a hell of a solo, but his solo is completely written.

Shalini’s solo is built structurally like mine. I take the thesis that Jelly Roll Morton laid out.  You’d never allow the artist to just have an open space to solo in, without putting some impediments in there, that they have to go towards and that they have to go from. So in the midst of my score for the improviser, it may have...[doodles musical figure]... in the middle of it. Jelly Roll Morton would never allow soloists to solo without putting a few notes somewhere in there that they had to deal with. Therefore when they approach that music, every time they play it, they have to figure out how to negotiate those notes. And that’s exactly what I do. So my solo, and Shalini’s solo, these are constructed like that. So that it gives that angle that you have to solve these problems of how to get there and how to release it, and keep moving, but she improvises so beautifully. You know, and she’s played all of my music and she’s had to improvise in it. Most of the string quartets in the collection of nine have some structure like that, or some musical tower, which is another kind of construction I use that allows for some improvisation. So they had some skills in that, from dealing with me for the last ten years as a composer.

SB: You managed to make the cello solo sound improvised too.

WLS: Well what I did, I gave the cello exactly the same line that the trumpet plays in the open part of it; but I just put it in a different register and added a few notes to it. So the trumpet line sounds like its beautifully done, and the cello comes in, and he knocks it out pretty powerfully. That’s all through the music. For example, the tympani music is precisely written, but the construction of it has it so that it can be played slow or fast, the durations are in proportion to each other, they don’t have to all be played in the same way. So it gives a little bit of leeway, as to how you play the figure, or how you play that part.

Stuart Broomer©2012

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