On a Monday set aside for celebration of the life, work and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., when hundreds of thousands fill the vast mall before our Capitol building as Barack Obama is sworn in as president a second time, there are many ways one could reflect on what all this might mean. One could do worse than to listen to the few hours of thoughtful, beautiful, demanding and rewarding music on “Ten Freedom Summers” (Cuneiform), from trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith.
“Ten Freedom Summers” is named for a 10-year stretch, from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional to the “freedom summer” voter-registration drive and Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also traces Smith’s life as a composer through 34 years—from his 1977 composition, “Medgar Evers” to his tribute to John F. Kennedy, written in 2011—to form a personal reflection on the legacy of the civil-rights movement from a musician, born in Leland, Miss., in 1941, who came of age as that history took shape. It can also be heard as a statement of artistic empowerment. Like his colleagues formatively affiliated with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, Smith blends improvisation and form in ways that elude genre categorization. Here, he combines his Golden Quartet, already a stretch of jazz’s small ensemble tradition, with a chamber orchestra. This was one of my favorite recordings of 2012, drawn from one of the most riveting live-music experiences I had the previous year, when Smith premiered the music over three consecutive nights at the RedCat Theater in Los Angeles.