By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
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It's not unusual for a working musician to think that critics ought to be ignored. But in the annals of icy press relations, the fearlessly independent composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith took the freeze-'em-out approach to a new level in the 1970s by formally requesting that music journalists not write at all about the albums he was then releasing on his own label.
"Some was insisting that it was jazz, and some of them was insisting that it wasn't jazz," Smith explained to me this month, from his home in California, about the first wave of writers trying to assess his music. "And I just felt that that was kind of too much to ask of a creative artist, to try to help them define what it was and what it wasn't."
Things are a little different now, thanks in no small measure to Smith's trailblazing aesthetic—in which fully notated, beautiful instrumental writing collides and commingles with passages allowing the freest of free improvisations. This approach has since been taken up by members of New York's fabled genre-busting downtown scene; it also now commands a respect within the halls of academic classical music that it didn't back in the radical days when the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians was formed.
Last year, as if to reward this progressive advance in our art-music discourse, Smith dropped a heavy statement: a four-CD set titled Ten Freedom Summers, 19 individual compositions inspired by the 71-year-old composer's wide-angle lens on the multi-decade civil rights movement. (In Smith's conception, this runs from the Dred Scott decision to the present day; a future piece in the series will take as its subject the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression during the 2012 presidential election.) Some works are written for a classical-style nine-piece chamber group, while others are performed by Smith's long-running quintet. And on several, including the gorgeous and disturbing "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless," both ensembles play together.
Appropriately, the 2012 recording of Ten Freedom Summers showed up on year-end lists prepared by both classical and jazz heads. And from May 1 to 3, the downtown Brooklyn venue Roulette has invited Smith to present the complete New York premiere of his magnum opus, as it currently stands, in a program that will include additional pieces that didn't make the recorded version—plus one world premiere that has been composed since the CD release. Smith says that he hopes to add a new commissioned piece each time he performs the full three nights of the series. This time around, the new composition will be a work inspired by Martin Luther King's March on Washington, performed by the new-classical stars of the Flux Quartet, along with Smith's band, which includes legendary names like Anthony Davis and John Lindberg.
Each piece to be performed in May has something unique to commend it. Take Smith's piece about Emmett Till, which includes urgent playing from Smith's group and the classical ensemble. If you know even a little of the history about the Mississippi adolescent who was beaten and killed for the offense of allegedly directing a "wolf whistle" at a white woman (and then for failing to fear his tormentors), you'll recognize it in the musical clarity of Smith's wide-ranging imagination: the crystalline authority and pride embodied by Smith's own trumpet lines, the confident gait of moments for percussion. And, in some of the chaotic interruptions from the string section—which sound savage and unorganized—you will hear the suggestion of "improvisation" in the most terrifying, deadly sense of the word.
In our conversation, Smith noted that he and Till were the same age when Till was killed only 14 miles from where the composer lived. "The only photograph I've seen of him is him with that white hat on—and that nice, beautiful, young, majestic childhood kind of a smile, OK? And the other one I saw a long time ago was what he looked like after they beat him ... but I try to lose it." Smith's idea for the first section was to "explore that youthful mug that I look into when I see that photograph of him in the white hat. And I decided I would actually write out a cello solo [to] represent that."
Like a proper avant-gardist, though, Smith doesn't tell the story in order. "The next part of it is I have his death—I mean I have his ascension back into the cosmos. I have him doing that in the middle of the piece, as opposed to after he died. And the reason I did that was I wanted to show something about this youthfulness being eternal, as opposed to coming out of death." This is followed by the improvisational section that portrays Till's murder. "That place in the rehearsal, we call that part 'the beating.' And after the beating it returns again to this kind of gentle darkness, a beautiful, youthful, inspiring idea about eternity."
If that sounds a bit mystical, consider that the composer has already built enough of a legacy to support this contemplation of times yet to come. All you have to do is poll the next generation of jazz visionaries, and you'll hear Smith's name. The younger pianist Craig Taborn, whose much-awaited new trio album Chants comes out in April from ECM, credits some of the very first Smith LPs—the ones the trumpeter asked critics to keep their mitts off of—as important in his early listening, around age 13. "Wadada's one that always stood out to me," he says. "It was a very identifiable voice. And a lot of it had to do with shaping and forming ideas and conceptualizing." (Taborn will follow Smith literally this spring, as well, performing at Roulette on May 6 after Smith's residency is complete.)
It's hard to say whether Smith has mellowed with age, or music writers have finally caught up to him. But he reports that questions these days have "impressed" him, from New York to Berlin to London. "Ten years ago, nobody would have asked me about the psychological meaning behind any piece. And not only that, even if they asked me and I told them, they wouldn't believe it." But now, readers can't plead ignorance. Whether you put these dates on your "jazz" or "classical" calendar—or even if you just place it on your "mind-bending art" calendar—consider Smith's Roulette performances among the most important concerts in New York this season.
Wadada Leo Smith's "Ten Freedom Summers," May 1-3, Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, roulette.org