AMN Reviews: Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers

Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Dan Coffey

There’s no getting around the obvious: at four full-length CDs, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is ambitious and daunting. As the title implies, Smith is giving musical context to the trials that African Americans have had to endure throughout the history of the United States. This is not operatic in nature, however, and there is no storyline. What we have are four discs full of compositions with titles like “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954,” and “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The good news is that this set can be listened to at one’s leisure, one song at a time and not necessarily in any order. It takes time for Smith’s music to sink in – although it is not terribly complex, it does unfold slowly. Many of the compositions extend to the fifteen-minute mark, and only very occasionally come back to a stated theme. The compositions are performed  by either Southwest Chamber Music with Smith on trumpet, or a smaller combo known variously as the Golden Quartet or Golden Quintet, depending on whether one or two of the drummers are involved. The drummers in question are Susie Ibarra, who gives the music a welcome texture that juxtaposes nicely with the occasional overly formal sounding bombast, and Pheeroan akLaff, who has a more traditional sound, but, as evidenced in the spine-tingling opening to “Thurgood Marshall,” where he duets with Smith, he is capable of playing “out.” Pianist Anthony Davis and bassist John Lindberg are no slouches, either. Davis, in particular, can go from an easy-going lilt to ominous stabs that might remind one of Mal Waldron. The tracks that feature the Southwest Chamber Music group, with all of its technical prowess and commanding presence, might remind the listener of a PBS documentary rather than a live conversation, which is what Smith’s small combo provides. in its comparatively more visceral and emotional interpretation of the themes that Smith set out to explore.