His Ten Freedom Summers may have been shortlisted for this year’s Pulitzer Prize, but that doesn’t mean Wadada Leo Smith has stopped work on the epic composition which he began writing more than three decades ago (and about which I wrote here back in August). During last night’s performance at Cafe Oto in London, the first of three across which he will deliver the entire sequence, he inserted an entirely new movement, and it turned out to be the most memorable of the lot.
Smith arrived in East London with a slightly reduced version of the double ensemble that appeared on the 4CD version released by Cuneiform Records last year. Alongside his trumpet, the piano of Anthony Davis, the bass of John Lindberg and the drums of Anthony Brown were the Ligeti Quartet — Mandhira de Saram (first violin), Patrick Dawkins (second violin), Richard Jones (viola) and Ben Davis (cello) — with the video artist Jesse Gilbert operating from a desk next to the sound mixer.
A clue to the inspiration behind the new movement, called “That Sunday Morning”, arrived when an image of a church appeared on the screens behind the players, followed by the faces of four young African American girls. They were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, the four members of the congergation who died on September 15, 1963 when a group of Ku Klux Klan members set a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was one of the most terrible incidents of the long struggle commemorated by Smith through the titles of the other movements, which mention Dred Scott, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, and others.
As you might have expected, the new piece adopted the mood of a threnody, a quiet and reflective lament that contained moments of striking beauty, particularly in Smith’s brief outbursts and in the rolling gospel phrases that Anthony Davis used sparingly but to very powerful effect. It was heartbreaking and spellbinding, and I hope the composer finds a way to record it in this form one day soon.
Two hours of music, with hardly a break, passed quickly, as I imagine they will tonight and tomorrow. I found myself thinking that the rearrangement of the pieces for the string quartet, rather than the nine-piece ensemble used on the album, worked extremely well, and perhaps even better, thanks not least to the talent and commitment of the young British quartet, rising to the challenge of a masterpiece.