Wadada Leo Smith’s album contains avant-garde music with a human face, intimate and appealing and beautifully played by a band of virtuosos.
Ten Freedom Summers. Wadada Leo Smith, composer, trumpet; Anthony Davis, piano; John Lindberg, bass; Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra, drums; Southwest Chamber Orchestra. Cuneiform Records.
By Michael Ullman.
Now 70 years old, Wadada Leo Smith was born in Mississippi but seemed to find his place in Chicago in the late 60s when he joined the cooperative music group the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). He came prepared. His stepfather, a blues singer known as Little Bill Wallace, entertained the likes of the much more famous Little Milton on Sunday nights at his home. Watching them party, Smith made a decision when he was 11 years old: “I said to myself, whoa, I’d like to be a musician.” He never wavered.
According to trombonist George Lewis, Smith’s high school teachers nicknamed him “Schubert” for his diligence. He went to work instead of college. Then, after a stint in the army, he went to Chicago, where he was introduced to the AACM (in 1968 he was its vice-president) and continued his studies. With Anthony Braxton, he studied “other countries’ music.” That music included Debussy, and, thanks to Braxton, Schoenberg and Stockhausen.
The music was at a kind of crossroads. John Coltrane died in 1967. Even before that, Braxton and other avant-gardists had decided that Coltrane had taken “intensity” as far as it could go. The Chicago musicians investigated contemporary classical musics, started playing a variety of instruments, and composed while developing their own often spacious and, depending on the individuals, theatrical style. They didn’t have to swing, they thought; nor did they need to shriek. In 1967-68, I attended concerts at the University of Chicago where concerts might start with seemingly disorganized group of musicians wandering among a display of instruments, picking up a rattle or overblowing a few notes on a flute, thumping on a bass drum, or issuing a few blats on a horn. They might subsequently play an innocent melody, such as Leroy Jenkins’s “Simple Like,” but it was clear that they were challenging conventional notions of music presentation, including avant-garde music presentation.
Smith was in the middle of this movement. A trumpeter with a forthright, penetrating sound, he seemed to have little of the coyness or humor that the other famous AACM trumpeter, Lester Bowie, indulged in. He was also a composer whose goal was to engage with all sorts of music, including the open-ended improvisations and completely composed chamber music found on his new, four-disc set, Ten Freedom Summers, which may be his most impressive recorded work as a composer. The summers from 1954 to 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed are his focus, but he ranges beyond them, beginning with a piece named “Dred Scott, 1857” and much later including a piece that is a memorial to September 11th.
The titles serve as signposts for Smith; what he has created hardly sounds like program music. It’s not clear to this listener, for instance, why “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education” should begin with a controlled, march-like drum pattern under Smith’s clarion trumpet calls. Still, when Anthony Davis enters with a tremolo and the motion breaks down, we can imagine conflict or a reaction against the forward march of the drums. The piece continues over an attractively swinging bass pattern laid down by John Lindberg and with some surprisingly lyrical passages by Davis underneath the implacable trumpet. Eventually the bass pattern slows, Smith plays a distended version of it, and, after a pause, he introduces an eerily quiet section on muted trumpet over individual, widely spaced notes of the piano. Part lament and often almost silent, perhaps this is meant to suggest what he calls “A Dream of Equal Education.”
Most of the pieces here are multi-sectional in an equally enlivening way. “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott” begins with Smith stating a broad, brave, folksy melody with his most outgoing tone. He stops and an agitated new section begins a drum solo, a bass line, and then anxiously fragmented lines from the trumpet.
The pieces that are composed for the small chamber band are recognizably from the same musician: they contain short, catchy melodic phrases or fragments that are developed in a transparent way. Smith allows the cello to begin to state the melody of the surprisingly un-gospel-influenced “Black Church.” Each instrument has its say: he doesn’t use the chamber group to create massed sounds but rather to complicate the conversation. Smith’s music rarely swings conventionally. Rather it flows in a pleasingly melodic way. It’s avant-garde music with a human face, intimate and appealing and beautifully played by a band of virtuosos.