Wadada Leo Smith: America’s National Parks

Wadada Leo SmithAmerica’s Natural Parks (Cuneiform, 2016)

wadada-parksOn KPFA radio yesterday afternoon, jazz/world DJ Art Sato started his show with a track from Fred Ho, that badass of the baritone saxophone. Ho was a political badass as well, and he would have been out in force this weekend, helping remind the world that the regime taking power in Washington D.C. is not supported by a majority of voters.

In that spirit, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) would seem like an appropriate CD to spin right now. It’s not a barn-burner like Ho’s big-band albums. But its scope, sometimes augmenting Smith’s Golden Quartet with a second drummer and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, reflects the unbounded ambitions and determination of the (still incomplete) civil rights movement. As I wrote previously, it makes you feel the weight of history.

Smith’s more recent album, America’s National Parks, would seem to pale in comparison. (It would be hard to reach farther than Ten Freedom Summers did.) But coincidentally, this was the weekend I was hoping to finish a writeup about the album, and hearing Fred Ho on the radio shifted my perspective.

The album is still a political statement, after all, and it could be seen as a voice of protest. As Smith writes, “My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.” Not everybody likes that idea, including, as of now, much of the executive branch of our own government.

Perhaps to emphasize what “common property” ought to mean, three of the six subjects on  America’s National Parks aren’t literally national parks. The album opens with “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” and “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park.” The first is the birthplace of jazz, a place that should stand out in the American consciousness just as Yosemite does. Southern is a Harvard professor and musicologist who convinced the academic world that black music was a subject worthy of serious study.

Source: Amit Patel on Flickr. CC2.0 license.

America’s National Parks is not a quick listen. The pieces, written for Smith’s quartet (John Lindberg on bass, Anthony Davis on piano, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) plus cellist Ashley Walters, are expansive and gradual. I have to admit my attention wanders during some of the slowly unfolding themes.

The first half of “New Orleans,” for instance, consists of an odd-time bass riff covered by tickles of piano and cello and the cutting blare of Smith’s muted trumpet — a jam in slow motion. It’s only when Davis’ splashy piano enters, and the band kicks into a more jazz-oriented take on the same theme, that my ears perk up.

The tracks devoted to Yosemite and Yellowstone have the grand entrances you’d expect. “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” opens with a group improvisation full of big drama, evoking the glaciers in the title.

“Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872” opens with an ominous bass-piano octave and a slow, reverent trumpet line. When the pace picks up, Davis gets showcased again, dabbling against an easygoing bass line and some distant shooting-star squeaks from either cello or trumpet

The longest track, appropriately, is “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC.” (The titles related to formal national parks include the year the park was inducted. For the Mississippi, we’re reminded that the land doesn’t really belong to us that way.) Like the river, the piece takes its time, wandering around each bend and occasionally hitting a tumultuous span. At one point there’s a slow funk riff backing some exciting drumming by akLaff, followed by a forceful whirlpool of free improvisation.

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.