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Wadada Leo Smith Ten Freedom Summers Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

An epic work from the veteran trumpeter, deserving of classic status.

Daniel Spicer 2012

Ten Freedom Summers truly deserves to be described as an epic work: 19 pieces across four CDs, encompassing more than four hours of music, composed by Wadada Leo Smith over the last 34 years. If it weren’t for the fact that the prolific 70-year-old trumpeter shows absolutely no sign of slowing down, it would be tempting to call it the work of a lifetime.

As the title indicates, the album represents meditations on the US Civil Rights movement from 1954 up to the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 – as seen through the eyes of an African-American artist who witnessed it first hand. The scope of the work is enormous, touching not just on the milestones and personalities of that turbulent decade but, like ripples spreading out from a central point of impact, reaching back to 19th century forbears such as Dred Scott and forward to the trauma of 9/11.

Yet, despite the scale of the themes, there’s never any doubt that these are highly personal reflections. Smith’s horn is a clear and strident cry, as angry as it is mournful. Indeed, much of the music sounds like struggle – a long way from the languid groove of his avant-funk unit, Organic. Here, it’s a mixture of austere contemporary classical composition performed by the LA-based Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, and turbulent free jazz improvised by the Golden Quartet, featuring pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummers Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan akLaff. Ibarra’s presence hints at an aesthetic link to the similarly rigorous and serious work of tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, with whom she has recorded. Yet, apart from a brief, loping vamp halfway through the first CD, there’s little of the deep, modal impulse that characterises much of Ware’s work. Instead, the playing more closely echoes the all-out ferocity of albums like Ware’s Wisdom of Uncertainty.

Above all, what Ten Freedom Summers shares with Ware’s work is a sense that the music is more than a merely emotional statement. This is a spiritual call to action, a powerful argument not just for civil rights but for universal human rights; a vision not just of a better America, but a better humanity; a plea for compassion and, yes, love. File this alongside iconic consciousness-raising jazz such as John Coltrane’s Alabama and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Another classic of the genre is born.

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