|Wadada Leo Smith speaking to the audience in Guelph after the performance of Ten Freedom Summers
|The citation accompanying the announcement that Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music stresses its monumentality: “An expansive jazz work that memorializes ten key moments in the history of civil rights in America, fusing composed and improvised passages into powerful, eloquent music.” He was also voted “Composer of the Year,” in Downbeat magazine’s critics’ poll, for this same work – as well as for his compositions for large ensemble, recordings with the Finnish orchestra TUMO issued as Occupy the World (TUM) earlier this summer. His comments on the Downbeat award, published in the August 2013 issue, stress more than history and canon, more than monument making, although Smith remains deeply conscious of his enmeshment in the continuum of African American musics. Smith points to community-building and change as key principles both in the historical self-awareness promoted by the AACM, through which his compositional and instrumental practices were first nurtured and supported, and in his own compositional practice, which stresses collaboration and mobility.
Those principles suggest, if not enact, a powerful cultural politics: a politics both invoked and put at issue in Ten Freedom Summers. His music, in many respects, offers aural analogues to grass-roots participatory democracy – mutual resonances that come together in practices of sounding and of sounding out. As Franz A. Matzner’s liner notes for Occupy the World put it, “Smith has long inhabited the space where political and artistic movements converge.” Matthew Sumera’s notes for the Cuneiform 4-cd recording of Ten Freedom Summersargue that Smith’s work produces much more than programmatic musical echoes of real-world engagement: “[This] music was not simply about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. It was part of them.” He quotes Wadada Leo Smith’s assertion that the performances of the suite invite a proactive and imaginatively engaged audience: “They poetically suggest what can be done. . . . None of these pieces [is] meant to simply be listened to.” Sumera pushes this claim further: “Rather, they are meant to be lived.” Extending the reach of Smith’s music beyond the aesthetic (as merely music) into the political (as music that makes a difference, that matters) isn’t liner-note hyperbole, but gestures at the core impetus of his improvisational and compositional practice, of his fusion – as the Pulitzer citation puts it – of these two seemingly incommensurate conceptual frameworks.
In an interview with Daniel Fischlin published as an appendix to an article by Fischlin in Critical Studies in Improvisation, Smith still calls what he does a “model” for political engagement, retaining the idea of an aesthetic analogue: “I strongly feel that the most beautiful model that we have of the practice of democracy is in fact expressed through the workings of a musical ensemble when it is improvising. That experience is a microcosm of those same democratic principles.” But I also hear echoes of Walter Benjamin’s call, in the last of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, for a refusal to aestheticize the political – to convert engagement into spectacle or artful mimesis – and, more importantly, for a creative practice that politicizes the aesthetic, that makes art matter. And it seems to me it’s worth testing, at least a little, how Smith’s work delivers on its claims, how it refuses the dilution of its vital human energies and seeks to reanimate a commitment to positive social and cultural change.
I’m already sounding like I’m on board with the broader project, and I have to admit that I am. But it’s important, I feel, still to retain a certain level of skepticism in order to assess the critical potential of this nascent utopianism, addressing what I feel is a persistent need for colliding artistic and political ideals, but doing so in as open-eyed and keen-eared a manner as I can manage. This exact idealism certainly coloured my expectations when I bought a ticket for a scaled-down performance on Saturday September 7, 2013, at the River Run Centre in Guelph by Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet (without accompanying chamber ensemble) – which included Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass and Anthony Brown on percussion. I was jazzed. This concert had the potential to be transcendent, epochal, monumental. The suite contains creative music – I had been listening at some length to the recording – of the highest order, and I really wanted it to deliver on its implicit promises of raised and altered consciousness – a promise that, in my earphones and on my stereo, I felt as if it had already abundantly kept, in fact. It sounds as if I was setting myself up for a disappointment, but that wasn’t the case. The quartet’s music was eloquent, deep, and uplifting. However, in performance, the often stringent demands of Smith’s conception and of the score itself also become a bit more tellingly evident. (A review of the performance by Alayne McGregor can be found here.) The Golden Quartet arranges itself in a semi-circle, with Smith stage left, rather than in the horns-to-the-front configuration of the typical post-bop ensemble. (Smith has often in his recordings worked with the spatiality of sound; on the ECM record Divine Love, for instance, he uses proximity and distance from the microphone to reshape the texture of multiple improvising trumpets.) While at first this spatial configuration might suggest a quasi-democratic leveling, in performance it makes Smith more visible to the other members of the quartet, leaving him able to direct the music more cleanly and organically.
During the Guelph concert, their eyes moved only from score – much of the music looks like it has been through-composed, though its sounds highly spontaneous – to Smith, closely attentive to the demands of structure and direction. In this particular instance, the rhythm section (all of whom are masterful composers, improvisers and bandleaders in their own right) appeared at times a little anxiously bound to the page, which gave the music at a very few points a brittleness, a slight strain that was out of keeping with the committed attack that the composition demands: it needs the instrumentalists to be on, fully inhabiting any given sound moment. While the musicians clearly share in the responsibility for carrying the larger design forward, Smith is still in charge; at several points in the Guelph set, when the collective energy seemed to lag, he strode to centre stage, pumping his right arm as if to impel the rhythm more vigorously forward. He frequently cued the quartet as to which of the nineteen movements they were playing next; rather than establishing a running order ahead of time, it appeared as if he were allowing the dictates of the moment to establish where the music would go next.
The larger design was always there, marked by definitively firm fragments of melody; I recognized (from my earlier listening to the recording) the In a Silent Way-like line from the second part of “America” (section 15) and the loping dirge of “September 11th, 2001” (section 16). (According to the review I’ve linked above, they didn’t play “America,” but I’m sure I heard it.) Jesse Gilbert’s video projections (of photographs of various civil rights activists, for example, marking several evocative moments in the suite) are also meant to suggest certain diegetic moments, when the music speaks its politics definitively. In the May 3, 2013, edition of The New York Times, Ben Ratliff reviewed the first of three nights of a complete performance of Ten Freedom Summers at Roulette in Manhattan, remarking on its simultaneously resonant and frustrating narrative aspirations:
This piece has stories to tell, or rather to refer to. It’s not meant to suggest a narrative but a series of images, evoked mostly through sound. It’s never obvious or literal, which is both very good and sometimes problematic.
A little of that frustration appeared to me to find its way into the urgency of Smith’s efforts to conduct the ensemble on stage in Guelph, visibly driving the music toward making it communicate, making it speak.
In the interview with Daniel Fischlin, Smith suggests that this tension is deliberate, and that speech – as democratically motivated debate and discussion – comes more as an after-effect of the listening experience, rather than as any expressive content of the music itself:
But the quartet still enacted a key aspect around the idea of productive debate, of musical performance as a thinking-through of the politics of voice and voicing. Smith still retained something like mastery over the set. His horn tone, for example, was magisterial, brassy, Armstrong-like, with a southern rawness to it: his own sound guided the ensemble fairly firmly. At the same time, Smith’s compositions aspire to what he calls multiple-dominance, a negotiation for aural space within the shifting dynamics of an ensemble:
I’m not sure I saw – although I may still have heard – a great deal of this sort of collaborative compromising during that set in Guelph; instead, it felt as if Smith were urging the other players toward a more definitive and confident co-participation in the music, but that the urgency and commitment still originated with him, with his instrumental voice.
In a very real sense, Smith wants the other performers in his groups to occupy his compositions. The liner notes for Occupy the World take an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience that speaks to a link between aesthetics and politics, a link that Mr Smith has pursued musically, improvisationally, for more than four decades: “Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?” The aesthetic dimension might not leap at first glance out of these lines, but if you look again closely at what Thoreau says, it does begin to locates itself in the crossover between a phenomenology of recognition and the craft of organization: how, we could ask, does Smith’s music activate and intensify participatory attention as it organizes and re-organizes itself? The coincidence and dehiscence of individuated lines, the fluid rhythmic geometries of his conception, the resonant potentialities of diversely intersecting timbres are all for him avenues, in performance, for occupying music. There are, he has said, two crucial aspects to his “concept for composing,” which he calls (in the liner notes for Occupy the World) rhythmic and polylinear:
Firstly, my composition are non-metric designs in regards to their rhythmic and sonic construction. The horizontal flow of the rhythms and sonic elements of a composition [is] achieved through a proportional structuring of the music’s geometric forms that, in performance, is realized by the shape f the music’s properties and not by its metric count. [. . .] [Secondly,] when I compose, I do not change the tonality of the instruments being used. . . . I do not believe in reducing the sonic field to a singular tonal spectrum, where one could have a multiple sonic spectrum hat shares the same musical grid without losing the large world of possibilities inherent in the sound universe.
The sometimes clashing sometimes consonant textures of the given timbre and tonality of instruments enacts a dynamics of argument, of compromise and self-assertion that, for Smith, has the potential to achieve what he calls a “higher level of realization,” as both performers and listeners, audience members. I am not sure if this realization happened during the hour or so I witnessed The Golden Quartet perform Ten Freedom Summers: Smith has set the bar very high for his collaborators. The music, taken on its own terms, was wonderful, powerful, moving: playing of a very high order that I was privileged to hear live. In the Downbeat piece, Smith admits that his project remains necessarily utopian, a figuration of human potential. He evokes the Occupy movement in New York, and globally, as a vitally nascent politics in which his music, he hopes, might participate:
“That was a great re-imagining of the possibilities of our society and possibility for radical change of our society,” Smith said. “It has not achieved it as such, but nevertheless, the idea is still there and not going away.”
And that persistence suggests something of the feeling of monumentality, of significance, that Smith’s music evokes: its moment.