Performing Arts: Music
October 29, 2013
A musical pageant that takes as its central theme the African American struggle for freedom and justice is expected to summon lightning and thunder from the skies with swelling, stirring themes that cascade over its listeners’ hearts. But “Ten Freedom Summers,” Wadada Leo Smith’s 19-piece-and-counting suite that was short-listed for last year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, does not rouse so much as ruminate over its commemorations.

As abstract, mercurial and layered as its composer’s trumpeting, “Ten Freedom Summers” seizes, then sustains attention by shifting its motifs, changing its tonal colors, expanding and then contracting its exchange of musical ideas, often with jolting intensity. To Smith, it seems less important (and certainly less original) to arouse immediate emotional responses to such myriad occasions as Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching, the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” of 1964, JFK’s New Frontier and the 1857 cuffing administered by the Supreme Court to Dred Scott’s dream of citizenship. It is more important for his listeners to instead feel their way through the suite’s thematic digressions towards finding new and transformative ways for remembering our shared history.

What may be even more innovative about “Ten Freedom Summers” is its on- stage multi-media presentation. At the Atlas Theater in Washington D.C.s burgeoning northeast H Street neighborhood, Smith conducted two ensembles: His Golden Quartet of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Anthony Brown and the Pacific Red Coral sextet of cellist Ashley Walters, violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violist Andrew McIntosh, harpist Alison Bjorkedal and percussionist Lynn Vartan. As Smith moved back and forth between each group, cueing them through every transition, a giant screen was likewise cueing the audience’s reactions by alternately flashing images of whatever or whomever each piece was celebrating (Malcolm X, LBJ, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks) blended with abstract visual representations of the music and its performance. Those wondering whether live jazz music has anywhere to go in the 21st mountings could and should recognize this hydra-headed staging as a potential “New Normal” for progressive AND traditional jazz performances.

And because it IS a jazz work within a compositional framework, the performance (which spread roughly two-thirds of the original piece over two days in three two-hour performances) allowed some room for improvisation, especially from Golden Quartet members Davis, himself a Pulitzer finalist for composing the century beyond the familiar big-band or small-combo 1985 opera, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” and Lindberg, whose free- form inventions at times seemed to transform the upright bass into something like a bluegrass guitar.

Mostly, when Davis and Smith lay out on their instruments, it was mostly to announce, embellish or enhance the frame around, or a mood-shift within, a particular theme. Smith's horn, in its plaintive, frequently coarse-edged tone has often been compared with that of Miles Davis, especially in the latter’s underrated late-1970s fusion period. (To these ears, it sounds as though Wadada extracts more possibilities from his riffs than Miles did back then. Feel free to politely disagree.)

Befitting its discursive, open-ended approach, “Ten Freedom Summers”, which Smith started working on more than thirty years ago, continues to add more pieces even with its exalted stature. The Atlas Theater marathon premiered two new sections, both commemorating 50th events: the August, 1963 March on Washington and the bombing a month later of a Birmingham Baptist church that killed four young African-American girls.

The latter movement, “That Sunday Morning: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Roberts and Cynthia Wesley: We Carry You in Our Hearts,” stood out among its older counterparts with an assertive, even angry theme before easing into a more meditative, probing series of discordant, yet measured interactions between the quartet and the string section. It was a timely, altogether appropriate application of added grace to an ambitious, difficult, but enthralling enterprise that, as with the struggle it chronicles, presses onward.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Gene Seymour

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