Music review: Wadada Leo Smith’s ‘Ten Freedom Summers,’ REDCAT

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This review has been updated, see note below for details.

For all the noble efforts made over the decades to effectively merge the worlds of jazz and classical music, most often the fruits of the labors remain stuck in the “noble effort” category. But there are blissful exceptions, a list to which we can now add Wadada Leo Smith’s ambitious five-hour, civil rights-surveying “Ten Freedom Summers,” given a moving world premiere at REDCAT on Friday through Sunday nights.


Of course, it helps that the 70-year-old “jazz” trumpeter-composer Smith, a longtime CalArts faculty member with roots in the fabled AACM (Assn. for Advancement of Creative Musicians), has worked on both sides of the mediumistic “aisle.” His magnum opus, 21 movements spread over three nights, boldly conjoins his various impulses.

For the performances, the REDCAT stage was divided between Smith’s “jazz-”minded Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music. Video elements by Ismail Ali and Robert Fenz added modestly to the sensory whole. This blending made for a fitting gesture in a work addressing heroes -– including Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. -- and heroic moments in Civil Rights history, a movement about striving towards equality and freedom.

Southwest Chamber, known for braving contemporary musical challenges (including past work by Smith), proved an ideal ensemble for the job. Conductor Jeff von der Schmidt led the nine-piece group through strictly through-composed passages and moveable modules. A wafting of minimalist textures runs through the section titled “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age,” while the sterner stuff of post-serialist writing arises elsewhere, asserting necessary rage and indignation.

At times, a string quartet separated out, with the impressive first violinist Shalini Vijayan standing out, lending her expressive and extended technique savvy in a duet with Smith’s trumpet on “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Saturday night’s show-closer. Other dialogues across the stage, and genres, included a percussion/drum duet between the powerful jazz drummer Susie Ibarra and ace percussionist Lynn Vartan, across the way. From the jazz component angle, Smith demonstrated once again -– as he has previously in this room -– that his Golden Quartet is among the more fascinating, inside-outside jazz groups around. In this incarnation, bassist long-standing member John Lindberg was abetted by Ibarra and rigorously fine pianist Anthony Davis (himself a skilled jazz-new music bridge-builder), sharply attuned to Smith’s vision. Smith’s trumpeting was alternately big and bracing -- evoking Miles Davis in his “electric voodoo” period of the ‘70s, but in acoustic mode -- or introspective, played with a mute.

All musical hands came together for the 21st movement on Sunday, “Martin Luther King Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy,” and MLK had the last word, literally, as the music stopped and the late reverend’s voice boomed out, “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Hope, anger, abstraction and grand aesthetic ambition come to bear in Smith’s inspirational work, bolstered by the charge of the new.


Wadada Leo Smith’s opus

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-- Josef Woodard

[For the record, Oct. 31 5:04 p.m.: An earlier version of this review misstated the names of pianist Anthony Davis and conductor Jeff von der Schmidt.]