EFG London Jazz Festival 2013
Cafe Oto, London
Cafe Oto’s programmers really surpassed themselves with this one. A true master of contemporary music, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, giving the European premiere of his huge Ten Freedom Summers with his own Golden Quartet (Anthony Davis – piano, John Lindberg – bass, Anthony Brown – drums), with the addition of the UK’s Ligeti String Quartet. Oh, and live video projections from artist Jesse Gilbert. Expectations were extremely high, but, of the two evenings I witnessed, were met spectacularly. These were performances of determined seriousness, intellect and humanity of music with some flaws but still more sustained passages of stunning beauty.
Wadada emerged in the late 1960s as part of Chicago’s radical AACM movement and it’s worth bearing this in mind when approaching his music, as the preoccupations of the AACM still inform both his improvisational and compositional approaches.
The use of silence as a structural element is one such preoccupation and it was much in evidence in Wadada’s playing these two nights. He made many large, suggestive breaks in his own improvisations, leaving us to focus on the swirling free jazz of the Golden Quartet behind him, or (when playing solo) on pure silence itself. The gap of a few beats that would be taken by many an improvisor becomes elongated in Wadada’s playing, suggesting that he is conceiving of his music over far longer and slower cycles of time.
It’s in many ways an extremely confrontational approach, demanding unusual levels of concentration from the audience. Of course, confrontation, total lack of compromise and even outright aggression are no strangers to the performances of many of Wadada’s fellow Chicagoans (try Roscoe Mitchell’s legendary 1973 solo Nonaah) but it struck me that these qualities were mitigated in Wadada’s own playing by the sheer beauty of his sound.
To use the usual sonic descriptive vocabulary (“full”, “warm”, “expressive”) doesn’t get close to describing the force and carry of Wadada’s trumpet. His sound has an incantatory, vatic power, reaching back through Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong to the earliest cry of the Blues. It’s no accident that these musical elements parallel the political and narrative concerns of Ten Freedom Summers; silence and the breaking of it, endurance and confrontation through beauty are central themes in the work and the story it tells.
Ten Freedom Summers both narrates and commemorates the struggle for civil rights by and for African-Americans, charting the history of the civil rights movement from the Niagara Falls Congress of 1905 through to Martin Luther King Jr’s memorial speech of 1968. The work is made up of a number of extended pieces depicting individuals such as Rosa Parks and King himself, events such as the march on Washington of 1963 and impressions of the African-American experience (Sunday Morning, Black Church). It also takes in subjects such as 9/11, corporate power and the fundamental human rights of all people (as Wadada movingly reminded us in a speech to the audience after the second night).
A work of such ambitious scope needs a concomitantly skilful degree of compositional and conceptual organisation and I didn’t feel that this was always in evidence, particularly in the writing for the strings (despite the excellent playing of the Ligeti Quartet) and the obvious confusion of the Golden Quartet as to structure at certain points.
The projected images beautifully expatiated the music, but I felt that the live graphic manipulation did the opposite, exercising a rather syncretic power; the resonance and possibility of sound being fixed too solidly into meaning by the visual parallel. But clearly the ambition of both scoring and conception is a vital part of Wadada’s vision for the piece and, if anything, what I felt to be the less successful elements only returned me to the humanity of the story being told.
So, a true master of the music backed by playing demonstrating the best of European classical and African-American musical traditions narrating an epic story of the struggle towards freedom and justice. A timely reminder that art is at its most, rather than its least, important in times of trouble.
Categories: Live review