Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records)

Wadada Leo Smith

Released May 22, 2012

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2012





Trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is the work of a lifetime by one of jazz’s true visionaries, a kaleidoscopic, spiritually charged opus inspired by the struggle for African-American freedom and equality before the law. Triumphant and mournful, visceral and philosophical, searching, scathing and relentlessly humane, Smith’s music embraces the turbulent era’s milestones while celebrating the civil rights movement’s heroes and martyrs. This four-disc set documents a stunning, career-capping accomplishment by a jazz giant in the midst of an astonishing creative surge.
An orchestral collaboration with the acclaimed eight-piece ensemble Southwest Chamber Music (harp, clarinet, 2 violins, cello, flute, viola, bass, percussion) conducted by Grammy Award-winner Jeff von der Schmidt, Ten Freedom Summers is built upon Smith’s celebrated Golden Quartet featuring pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Susie Ibarra and/or drummer Pheeroan akLaaf (who often expands the ensemble to a quintet). As a child of the Deep South who was raised in the red-hot crucible of the civil rights movement, Smith traces the project’s origins back to 1977, when he wrote “Medgar Evers,” an expansive evocation of the NAACP activist gunned down in Mississippi 14 years earlier.

Working in fits and starts, Smith completed the 19-piece project 34 years later in October of 2011 with a portentous, elegiac piece for Southwest Chamber Music. In designing the huge, multi-movement work, he focused on the transformative decade framed by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I was born in 1941 and grew up in segregated Mississippi and experienced the conditions which made it imperative for an activist movement for equality,” says Smith says, who marked his 70th birthday with a presentation of this, perhaps his most ambitious undertaking. “I saw that stuff happening. Those are the moments that triggered this. It was in that same environment that I had my first dreams of becoming a composer and performer.”

After decades of being revered by his peers and colleagues, Smith is attaining his rightful place at the forefront of American music. Ten Freedom Summers is an important work that combines unique, fully scored rigorous passages and great improvisational skills into one huge and cohesive work. It is a thrilling, emotionally charged and satisfying work from a master. 

Track Listing:

Disc 1

1. Dred Scott: 1857 (Wadada Leo Smith) 11:48

2. Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada (Wadada Leo Smith) 05:15

3. Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless (Wadada Leo Smith) 18:02

4. Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954 (Wadada Leo Smith) 15:05

5. John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960 (Wadada Leo Smith) 22:08

Disc 2

1. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days (Wadada Leo Smith) 12:43

2. Black Church (Wadada Leo Smith) 16:35

3. Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964 (Wadada Leo Smith) 12:34

4. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Wadada Leo Smith) 24:12

Disc 3

1. The Freedom Riders Ride (Wadada Leo Smith) 16:40

2. Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice (Wadada Leo Smith) 10:07

3. The D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times (Wadada Leo Smith) 12:17

4. Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press (Wadada Leo Smith) 15:03

5. The Little Rock Nine: A Force for Desegregation in Education, 1957 (Wadada Leo Smith) 13:49

Disc 4

1. America, Pts. 1, 2 & 3 (Wadada Leo Smith) 14:11

2. September 11th, 2001: A Memorial (Wadada Leo Smith) 09:39

3. Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964 (Wadada Leo Smith) 08:36

4. Democracy (Wadada Leo Smith) 14:30

5. Martin Luther King, Jr: Memphis, The Prophecy (Wadada Leo Smith) 20:34


Wadada Leo Smith: composer, trumpet
Anthony Davis: piano
John Lindberg: bass
Pheeroan akLaff.: drums
Susie Ibarra: drums

Jeff von der Schmidt: conductor
Alison Bjorkedal: harp
Jim Foschia: clarinet
Lorenz Gamma: violin
Peter Jacobson: cello
Larry Kaplan: flute
Jan Karlin: viola
Tom Peters: bass
Lynn Vartan: percussion
Shalini Vijayan: violin

Recorded November 4-6, 2011, at Zipper Hall, The Colburn School, Los Angeles, CA,

Producer: Wadada Leo Smith

Recording Engineer: Matthew Snyder

Editing and Mixing Engineer: Jeff Evens

Mastering Engineer: Gene Paul

Mastering Assistant: Jamie Polaski

Front Cover Photo: Warren K. Leffler

CD Package Design: Bill Ellsworth

Drawings by Lyn Horton


Wadada Leo Smith spent nearly 35 years composing Ten Freedom Summers, his massive tribute to the Civil Rights Movement. These 19 compositions address the era’s milestones between 1954 and 1964: they celebrate its places, heroes, and motivations, and they remember its martyrs. These four discs contain over five hours of music. It is performed by his Golden Quartet and Golden Quintet, with the composer on trumpet, pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, and drummers Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra, as well as the nine-member, Los Angeles-based contemporary classical group Southwest Chamber Music under the direction of Jeff von der Schmidt. It travels through jazz, contemporary classical music, and modernist improvisation. It was recorded in three days. The compositions are organized in three principal sections “Defining Moments in America,” “What Is Democracy,” and “Freedom Summers.” It was begun in 1977 with “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice,” written for violinist Leroy Jenkins. It was worked on for nearly two decades before being completed in a flurry of activity between 2009 and 2011. Though sprawling and ambitious, Smith’s compositions are focused, yet they do allow real freedom of expression for the individual players. The overarching theme of Ten Freedom Summers never overwhelms its content. Individual works don’t follow in chronological order, but are organized more organically, allowing for an ease of flow despite the project’s grand scale. With a couple of exceptions, the jazz group and the classical ensemble perform separately, and the contrast is beautifully complementary. One exception is on the suite-like “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless.” The Golden Quartet begins by improvising along a lyric frame, before Southwest Chamber Music enters. Its cellist engages in counterpoint with Lindberg before the GQ drops out, only to return later in full roar as the strings shimmer, fade, then sprint back into the fray until the tune closes with emotional resonance and power. Most of these pieces are long, ranging between nine and 20 minutes. But Smith has been composing for the Golden Quartet and Quintet groups for decades, and has often worked with strings. His musical language moves between these two formations with ease and grace, always achieving his stated aim. He is able to channel each group dynamic, whether in formally composed music, or structured or spontaneous improvisation to articulate a gorgeous narrative flow. As such, Ten Freedom Summers is an encounter with music as much as it is a statement about, and the analysis of, history. The story offered in sound is as emotionally and powerfully resonant, as profound as any written account, because for Smith, this story is immediate; born not of mere topical reflection but of personal and spiritual experience. His commitment is total. Ten Freedom Summers is his magnum opus; it belongs in jazz’s canonical lexicon with Duke Ellington’s Black Brown & Beige and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.

Thom Jurek (AllMusic)