Wadada Leo Smith: The Weight of History

Wadada Leo SmithTen Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012)

I’m almost at a loss to write about this one, because it’s so colossal, and because the accolades are already stacked a mile high.

But Ten Freedom Summers does feel like the masterpiece the critics say it is. That some tracks are performed by a classical ensemble, Southwest Chamber Music, helps the collection feel like high art, but the jazz quartet/quintet tracks are artsy as well, full of depth and feeling.

That the pieces tend to lengths around 15 minutes helps the project feel big. So do the song titles (“Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954”). But of course, its the theme that stands out and that carries all these pieces to their heights. This is a lifetime’s work, dedicated to arguably the most important concept of the 20th century. Civil rights didn’t just help certain groups. It moved civilization. It was a tectonic thrust of social change, and while women’s rights were just as important an advancement, they didn’t come with the same threat to life and limb that faced the soldiers of the ’60s.

So, how much of the power and majesty that I’m hearing in these four CDs is coming from the power of suggestion? This struck me during one of John Lindberg’s bass solos. It’s not like he’s ever had a solo before. But it sounds so sparkling and eloquent here. Is that just because of the subject matter? Or is it that the subject matter, and the compositional framework around that solo, inspired Lindberg to stretch for a little bit extra? Maybe neither.

Whatever the case, a musical suite devoted to the civil rights movement needs to be big. It’s not a story to be told, or a single emotion to be conveyed, in the draconian span of one CD’s length. It’s a very orchestral idea, painting musical portaits of people, ideas, histories. These aren’t compositions that rise up from a keen riff or a single melodic idea; they’re conceptual, and I imagine each one took time and inspiration. That some of the pieces had extra years to be nurtured or refined only strengthens the whole.

In the end, then, Ten Freedom Summers does feel like a life’s work, and an appropriate tribute to the sacrifices of millions whose work is not yet done.

Specific moments? I love the grandness of “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society” — the stern, parliamentary drums, the sparse, bleak landscape it paints. “September 11th, 2001” is appropriately mournful and respectful but doesn’t wallow in the national self-pity that’s present in, say, 7th-inning singings of “God Bless America.” (A tradition many baseball teams have thankfully abandoned.)

“Democracy,” near the end of the journey, is appropriately spiky and jagged, an appropriate musical image for the discomforts of freedom.

Of course, the tribute to MLK is saved for last. The main theme to “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy” is appropriately grand and reverent, blending triumph and weariness, facing back to some great accomplishments while facing forward to realize the work has so far to go.

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