Review: Wadada Leo Smith at LJF

Simon Adams is inspired by a live magnum opus performed by Smith and the Ligeti Quartet as part of the London Jazz Festival

Wadada Leo Smith’s awe-inspiring Ten Freedom Summers was given its world première in Los Angeles in October 2011. The work has now made its way across the Atlantic, where it received its European première at London’s Café Oto as part of the 2013 London Jazz Festival. This sprawling opus – it fills four CDs – was spread over three nights, its personnel reduced by necessity as its original nine-piece American chamber orchestra was replaced by Britain’s Ligeti Quartet while Smith’s Golden Quintet now missed a second drummer. A video projection behind the two quartets showed a mixture of band footage and images from the civil rights struggle in the decade between the seminal Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 10 freedom summers of the title.

I caught the middle night of the performance, an often sombre, chilling mixture of separate quartet work and octet cooperation. Alone, the Ligeti Quartet sometimes sounded underpowered as they struggled with aspects of the score, although solo outings from both the viola and lead violin in their higher registers achieved great impact. But the string quartet did find its form in some keening, questing passages, notably on the bleakly spiritual Black Church. The Golden Quartet was more at ease, bassist John Lindberg a rock on which their music was based. Smith’s trumpet was often Milesian in style, clean sweeps of notes pouring down over the sometime tumultuous backing. Together, the two quartets cohered wonderfully, achieving a magisterial result on a new addition to the work, That Sunday Morning.

Ten Freedom Summers is always going to be a challenging work to perform, its length and emotional impact giving its musicians much to comprehend. As it is unlikely ever to become a repertory piece, it will fall to new combinations of musicians to tackle this work largely unseen and unknown. The Ligeti Quartet rose to the occasion magnificently.

Photography by Scott Goller

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