Jazz is not famed for its monumental works. Compared to opera or the late romantics, small is usually beautiful in jazz. But there are composers comfortable with the bigger canvas – Duke Ellington in his suites, for example – as well as those who have presented jazz in a more extended format – I’m thinking Wynton Marsalis’s Blood On The Fields.
But I think monumental is an accurate description of Ten Freedom Summers. There is nearly four and a half hours of music on the four CDs, not a single work but 19 pieces divided into three “primary collections”, Defining Moments in America, What Is Democracy? and Freedom Summers.
It’s overriding subject matter is the Civil Rights era of American history, but because Smith lived through this era – he was born the same year as Emmett Till, brutally and racially murdered at 14, and one of the subjects within this work – this is a very personal take on the people and events of the times, rather than an overarching attempt to sum them up.
The titles are unequivocal: Medger Evers: A Love-Voice Of A Thousand Years’ Journey For Liberty And Justice; Rosa Parks And The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days; John F Kennedy’s New Frontier And The Space Age, 1960, are examples. In total they represent a lifetime’s work. Though some of the pieces date back 34 years, the bulk have been composed in the last three or four years.
The personnel comprises Smith’s Golden Quartet/Quintet of Smith on trumpet, Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass and the drums of Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra, and Southwest Chamber Music, a nine-strong strings, woodwind and percussion group conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt. Some pieces uses just the quartet or quintet, some the quartet and the chamber group, some just the chamber group.
So what does it sound like? Well, there is a whole world of music here, from the heart-achingly gentle to the incandescently enraged, from the formally composed and notated to the wildly free, from plangent string writing to some really heavily-grooved stuff. At its centre, of course, is the distinctive clear, almost vibrato-less trumpet sound of Wadada Leo Smith.
It will take a good few months if not years of listening to really get my head around all the riches in these four discs, but it’s going to be a journey of infinite riches.
Wadada Leo Smith makes a rare visit to London this coming weekend, with a two-day residency at Cafe Oto on Sunday and Monday. He won’t be playing any of this music but he will be presenting a wide range of material.
He will be working with four groups across the two nights. On Sunday, he performs with an acoustic trio featuring guitarists John Coxon and John Russell followed by an electrified quintet with Coxon, Russell, bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders. On Monday, he’ll open with a brass quartet featuring trombonist Gail Brand and trumpeters Ian Smith and Byron Wallen and then finish things off with a driving ensemble featuring percussionists Charles Hayward, Steve Noble and Orphy Robinson.
You can find out more and book tickets here.