Regular readers know that it is extremely difficult for me not to give a five-star rating to Wadada Leo Smith, as I did with six of his previous albums. And even if I think this is one of the albums that you should buy this year, and even if I think that few musicians have spent as much time, and effort in an album as Wadada Leo Smith did with this one, I hesitated a long time to give it a five-star rating.
The trumpeter's project is ambitious : a four disc box of composed and improvised music, evoking the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, by juxtaposing a classical chamber string ensemble with his own Golden Quartet, consisting of Anthony Davis on piano, Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan akLaff on drums, John Lindberg on bass, and Smith of course on trumpet. The Southwest Chamber Music ensemble is conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt and consists of Alison Bjorkedal on harp, Jim Foschia on clarinet, Lorenz Gamma on violin, Peter Jacobson on cello, Larry Kaplan on flute, Jan Karlin on viola, Tom Peters on bass, Lynn Vartan on percussion, Shalini Vijayan on violin.
Whether solo or in duos or quartets or bigger ensembles or bands, Wadada Leo Smith always goes for maximum intensity, with incredible commitment to musical quality, sense of direction and in-the-moment focus. The same is true of this album. Despite its length, it's hard not to remain captivated as a listener. Some moments are outright spectacular and unique, less in the separate quartet or ensemble pieces, but when they mix or clash or move as one.
If anything, Smith moves his usual commitment even further, creating four CDs with an incredible sense of drama and tragedy and dark romanticism. There is absolutely no moment of relief for the listener in the ensemble compositions, as there is with the jazz pieces, who often move into a lighter, sometimes even lightly funky mode. That being said, Smith moves his "classical" composition into areas unheard of in the genre, adding the level of harsh distress that gives a unique quality to the sound, as on the finale of "Medgar Evers", when piano and drums literally overpower the string ensemble.
Or take the example of "Emmett Till" on the first disc, on which the entire central part of the composition consists of long stretched and eery cello tones, leading the ensemble into a complex arrangement only to clash full force with the jazz band, as if the sweet waters of a massive river collide with the upcoming salty surf from the sea, mixing and moving forward with waves shooting in all directions, full of turbulence and mayhem.
The trumpeter himself is less present than on most of his other albums. Sure, his playing is still decisive for the overall sound, yet if you calculate his playing time on the entire album, my estimate would be around fifteen percent, but as on "The DC Wall" his few muted sounds at the end of the sad and slow quintet piece say it all in terms of mood and effect.
We get some known tracks from "America" with a drum solo by akLaff. Other pieces, like the bass-line on "Thurgood Marshall" sound familiar, yet I did not want to start looking in his full discography to find the similarities.
Maybe my lack of interest in third stream music influences my decision not to give this album a five star rating. Would I listen to the string ensemble if this was not a Wadada Leo Smith album? Probably not. Would I enjoy the classical parts if they were carved out from this album? Possibly, yet not sure. But they are part of the album, they are an integral part of the overall sound and story and structure.
But I must be crazy. Listening again to some pieces after having written the above, and especially the twenty-minute long finale, the great tribute called "Martin Luther King, Jr", with its dark string tones and somewhat hopeful clarinet, the slow build-up and magnificent pacing driving the ensemble sadness into a paroxysmal clash with the quintet, at the same time sad, yet full of force to pick up the pieces and change the intimate chamber sound into the expansive energy of the jazz quintet, I can only go back and reconsider my evaluation.
It is by all means an exceptional album. Smith's grand work, the thing that's been in the making for many years, a cry for America, a cry for freedom and emancipation, for education and expression and representation, using the struggle of African Americans, but representing the struggle of all oppressed peoples at all times anywhere, a cry for what went wrong and still goes wrong, full of heartrending moments of sadness, of distress and powerlessness, and of rising above oneself, standing up and moving the unchangeable.
It is also an intelligent and complex album, with the two worlds of classical and jazz merging yet remaining separate, clashing yet making the same music, emphasised by the identical solos by cello and trumpet, like two individuals coming from two separate worlds expressing the same feelings. Both genres are here in their own right, the classical is classical, and the jazz is jazz and not like in so many albums, with the strings providing a backdrop for jazz musicians who want to be taken seriously.
Smith manages to make it all come across : the politics, the social distress, the psychology of individuals who conquered their own fear and did what they thought was right, but rather than being an outright ode and tribute to these exceptional people, Smith brings them to life, makes it all real again, makes it felt again, including the internal conflict and turmoil, avoiding black and white contrasts, .... and all this through music.
One of the most memorable albums you will hear in years, if not decades. In the shallowness and mediocrity and superficial junk that surrounds us, it is a wonderful moment of relief to hear something so deep and significant.
The people whose freedom struggles are remembered are :
Malik Al Shabazz
The Little Rock Nine
Fannie Lou Hamer
Martin Luther King, Jr.
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