Now in his seventieth year, trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has proven himself one of the major jazz figures to come of age in the 1960s. Mississippi-born Smith was an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a grassroots/DIY collective dedicated to the presentation of a unique strain of avant-garde jazz. Smith’s approach on the horn is parched and spaciously minimalist, but has in recent years become enriched with the volatile, bristling crackle of Miles Davis’ post-Bitches Brew playing.
Ten Freedom Summers may be Smith’s crowning achievement, his very own Sgt. Pepper’s or (Beethoven’s) Ninth Symphony. A sprawling suite contained in four discs, Summers is a chronicle of and tribute to the civil rights movement’s struggles and victories in the last century. Smith’s quartet/quintet — pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, drummers Susie Ibara and/or Pheeroan akLaff — and the classical ensemble Southwest Chamber Music, alternate and share the spotlight, performing in tandem and separately. Similar to Frank Zappa and Charles Ives, Smith can juxtapose seemingly dissimilar aspects and come up with stunning, invigorating panoramas — open-ended, seemingly “free” jazz blow-outs, blues and gospel motifs, purposeful swing, and somber, mercurial 20th-century classical music (think Shostakovich, Ligeti, Stravinsky) passages. Moods range from the almost unbearably mournful “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless” to the purposeful, optimistic-but-laced-with-mystery, Bernard Herrmann-like “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier …” and the harrowing, subtly exultant “Martin Luther King Jr.: Memphis, the Prophesy.” Bassist Lindberg is the tether to the earth while Smith shows us the skies of America. (Cuneiform)