Ten Freedom Summers – The Longest Jazz Composition Ever?

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Last October, Southwest Chamber Music kicked off its 25th anniversary season with a monster of a work, Ten Freedom Summers by jazz trumpeter, avant-garde classical composer and CalArts faculty member Wadada Leo Smith. It was a magnum opus in every sense –  19 compositions requiring three nights to perform, 34 years in the making, rolling avant-garde jazz and classical elements into one ball, purporting to capture the psychological and spiritual meanings of not only the Civil Rights movement in America but other events and issues stretching from the Dred Scott decision of 1857 all the way to 9/11.  At over 4 1/2 hours in length, it might be the longest jazz-based work of all time, easily surpassing by far previous monsters like Charles Mingus’s Epitaph, Wynton Marsalis’s Blood On The Fields or Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill.

Unfortunately, I happened to be out of town when it was performed at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles, but a recording was made a few days later, and it landed with a plop on my doorstep last week – a well-packed four-CD boxed set on the Cuneiform label.  The sound is stunningly good, recorded in one of Los Angeles’s hidden acoustical treasures, the Colburn’s School’s Zipper Concert Hall, one block away from REDCAT.  Smith’s jazz group, the Golden Quartet/Quintet, handles a good deal of the music, spelled by the classical nine-piece Southwest Chamber Music ensemble under the direction of Jeff von der Schmidt; only in three pieces are they used together.  A month away from turning 70, Smith is in astoundingly fine form on trumpet, peeling off one spectacular run after another up high and everywhere; this at an age when most players of this physically-demanding instrument are well on the decline. Think of Miles Davis’s playing on the title track of “Bitches Brew” and you’ll get an idea.

Now about the music … There are some challenging, turbulent, soul-satisfying sounds within this vast container, but an immersion with the CDs proves that Ten Freedom Summers is best heard in sections rather than in one marathon session (indeed, Smith insists that this is not a suite; rather the pieces are all stand-alone compositions). The pieces are lengthy, discursive, solemn, serious monuments, with frequent passages of tumbling free jazz and abstruse atonal chamber music.  Each one has a title pertaining to figures from the era (the usual names crop up, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, JFK, LBJ , etc.) or subjects related directly (“The Black Church”) or indirectly (“Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press”) to the movement.  But it seems to me that you can switch the titles of the pieces and it won’t make much difference.  While Smith courageously avoids the predictable idea of setting or juxtaposing the words from that era in favor of abstract musical expression, there’s not much to choose between a piece entitled “September 11, 2001” from another called “Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964.”  To some extent, the same can be said of the sections played by the classical group and those played by the jazz combo.  The main difference is that of color, the language seems strikingly similar.

On one level, this is an amazingly-integrated fusion of idioms – and you could say that this achievement alone mirrors the Civil Rights-era goal of color-blind integration of the country. But will 4 1/2 hours of Wadada Leo Smith’s abstractions have the same emotional impact and invoke the era as powerfully as five minutes of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”? Well, I tried listening to “Alabama” right after finishing Ten Freedom Summers, and the kinship between the two was instantly and surprisingly clear.  Coltrane’s eloquent threnody from the past sounded like the epilogue that Smith’s huge work could use.