Saturday, February 1, 2014

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers

Last Saturday (January 25th), I attended a concert by trumpetist Wadada Leo Smith in Vitry/Seine, within the Sons d'hiver festival, which serves as a pretext for this blog entry.

The first part featured the Anti Pop Consortium's machine-player HPrizm, accompanied by improvisers David Virelles (piano), Steve Lehman (saxophone) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet), as well by Emanuuel Pidre (visuals). I found this part a bit bland. HPrizm's music lacked inspiration, rhythm, and although the improvisers are remarkable musicians, it was probably difficult for them to build on a lame material. Steve Lehman saved most of it, I think, because his playing is very lyrical, and quite dense, so that he could made the music.

The second part was Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers — well, only a part of it, although they played for almost two hours.  Ten Freedom Summers is the title of a monumental series of compositions by Wadada Leo Smith: 19 pieces, lasting for 4 hours and a half, depicting those moments of American history where African american people fought for Freedom. The first piece,  “Dred Scott, 1857” recalls the story of Dred Scott, a slave who filed a suit at the Supreme Court to be able to buy his freedom, and lost, when the Supreme court ruled (1857) that people of African origin, whether slave or free, were not citizens of the United States —anyway, Scott had been freed the very same year by his new owner. The second piece is about the Montgomery bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks in 1944. Two pieces are also devoted to the US presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, celebrating the New Frontier, and the Civil Rights act of 1964.

I had been introduced to Wadada Leo Smith's music thanks to France Musique program Open Jazz, when Alex Dutilh aired the piece “Kulture of Jazz”, from the Kulture Jazz CD. Most of the pieces of that disc are evocations of jazz through some prominent figures of jazz (Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler), African literature (Ayl Kwel Armah), or his personal life (Sarah Brown-Smith-Wallace). The “K” in the title, which reminds me of the Klan, already emphasized the fact that jazz is an African-american music of emancipation. That is the music that black people played, but didn't have the right to listen to.

In Kulture Jazz, Wadada Leo Smith is the only credited musician. He mostly plays the trumpet, an instrument that truly belongs to jazz music (although it is slightly less heared these days), but he also sings, plays percussions, as well as koto, a rarely heard instrument in this context!

For Ten Freedom Summers, he combines a jazz quartet (trumpet, bass, drums and piano) and the Southwest Chamber Ensemble, a 9-musician strings combo. The combo that was initially announced for the concert was Smith's Golden quartet (with Anthony Davis, piano; John Lindberg, bass; Pheeroan akLaff, drums), except that the bassist had broken his wrist and could not play. He was thus replaced by Ashley Waters (from the Southwest Chamber Ensemble) on cello. Consequently, but that's probably one of the miracles allowed for by improvised music, the concert sounded pretty much like the recorded music.

Anyway, both Kulture Jazz and Ten Freedom Summers are very different from other jazz pieces devoted to the civil rights movements that I know (such as Max Roach's Freedom Now. We Insist! whose “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” is one of the rare jazz pieces that made me cry, or from Charles Mingus's “Fables of Faubus”).

First, the music sounds different. For example, there is no rhythm section in Kulture Jazz, and almost nothing as such in Ten Freedom Summers. And the pieces are definitely not built on the classical form (rhythmic/harmonic) we're now used to, either from listening to classical music, or from blues, or from the modal pieces played by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others in the 50s-60s.  Maybe not unlike latter pieces by Coltrane (Love Supreme, or Interstellar Space), Wadada Leo Smith's music is an abstract meditation about the place of an African-american musician in History.

Then, although some parts of the concert seemed to be improvised, it all looked as if they played the music as it is written on a score. This was the more surprising for the drummer who, most always in jazz music, is left to imagining by himself how he should bring his playing to the music being created. (When drummers have scores, that's rarely drum scores, but more often that of the bass player, or simply the main theme with the chords changes.)

Even Pheeroan akLaff was obviously playing the drums as written on the score, but the compositions gave him a quite interesting role in the development of the music. Wadada Leo Smith had written long solos for the drums which began or ended the pieces. In fact, since the group that night had no bass player, but a cellist who played with the bow — anyway, Lindberg mostly plays with the bow on the CD too — the other musicians are not given the explicit harmonic/rhythmic pattern that a “walking bass” can impose on the music, so there's probably no point for the drummer to play a definite swing rhythm, which akLaff did not do.

And within Wadada Leo Smith's mostly meditative music, that was akLaff's playing — sometimes forceful, or with traces of military marches — that reminded us that Freedom is a fight.

An everyday-fight.

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