ROSA PARKS: PURE LOVE, AN ORATORIO OF SEVEN SONGS / SMITH: Prelude: Journey / BlueTrumpet Qrt; drums / Vision Dance 1: Resistance and Unity. Rosa Parks: Mercy, Music for Double Quartet. Postlude: Victory! / RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt; electronics, dms / Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Song 5: No Fear. Song 6: The Second Light / Min Xiao-Fen, voc/pipa; RedKoral Qrt / Song 2: The First Light, Gold. Song 4: The Truth / Carmina Escobar, voc; RedKoral Qrt / Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice & Liberation / Anthony Braxton, a-sax; RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt; Steve McCall, dm / Song 3: Change It! Sing 7: Pure Love / Leroy Jenkins, vln; Karen Parks, voc; RedKoral Qrt / Vision Dance 3: Rosa’s Blue Lake. The Known World: Apartheid / RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt; Ankhrasmation Panel; perc; Wadada Leo Smith, tpt / Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa / Wadada Leo Smith, Graham Haynes, tpt; Ankhrasmation Panel; RedKoral Qrt; BlueTrumpet Qrt / TUM Records CD-057
This album, much more of a suite than a collection of “jazz tunes,” is Wadada Leo Smith’s tribute to the late Rosa Parks, who made history in the late 1950s and started a cultural revolution by refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Although it was believed for decades that she acted on her own, she was actually asked to make this social statement by the NAACP because they thought that Parks, a mild-mannered, well-educated woman, would be the best African-American person to survive a court challenge—which she did.
In creating the music, Smith not only participated himself but wrote most of it as a through-composed score for the BlueTrumpet and RedKoral Quartets with additional soloists, speakers, singers, percussion players and a pipa player. He also included some “sampling” of previous recordings by alto saxist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins. All of this adds up to a complex, multi-movement work that challenges the listener yet rewards him or her for their attention.
The selections as listed in the header above are clearly out of order, arranged to show which performers were used on which selections. The opening Prelude: Journey is among the edgiest pieces on the album, throwing the listener into a maelstrom of atonal sound created by the dual quartets with percussion. The tension eases for the Vision Dance 1, the music reminding me somewhat of both Bartók and Ligeti; parts of it are not only tonal but quite lyrical, yet with edgy overtones. As in the case of Pablo Aslan’s remarkable new CD, this is the kind of music that I love but will undoubtedly baffle and even alienate jazz collectors, who don’t like structural formality or allusions to art music. The violin solo at the outset of Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott is also tonal and lyrical, with the string quartet accompanying the surprisingly lovely voice of Min Xiao-Fen who also plays the pipa. What surprised me in this section was not just Smith’s gentle, lyrical side but his ability to write in a sostenuto fashion for voice and strings without resorting to banality. Bravo!
After the first song we get the second, The First Light, Gold, featuring violin soloist Mona Tian and another fine vocalist, Carmina Escobar with the string quartet. Vision Dance 2 features a brief excerpt from Anthony Braxton’s Composition 8D as recorded for Delmark in 1969, then moves on to edgy, atonal music played by the RedKoral Quartet with percussion. This is followed by the trumpet quartet playing in an antiphonal style, then a drum kit with electronics (mercifully, brief and not very loud). We then hear an edgy, double-time violin solo followed by the quartet and vocalist Karen Parks (not quite as good as the previous two singers) doing the edgy song Change It! The percussion then kicks in as we move into the next song, The Truth, sung by Escobar with the string quartet. Smith does an excellent job throughout of maintaining a balance between the strictly classical elements and the percussion improvisations.
My sole caveat about the work as a whole is that the vocal lines all seem to follow the same very simple pattern, particularly in tempo, rhythm and most of the time even in key. I realize that Smith was trying to create, as he put it, a hymn of love to Parks and her achievement, which is fully understandable, but the sameness leads to a feeling of déjà vu in the listener despite the evidently high quality of the scoring and the originality of his conception. This is not meant as a serious criticism of the work as a whole, but merely a suggestion that Smith may wish to re-write parts of it to more closely mirror the feeling of each song’s text without repeating musical patterns. As what may be his first attempt at such a large musical construction in formal music with voice, however, it clearly has many good qualities, and in live performance it is accompanied by visual images which enhance the music’s impact.
In toto, then, an interesting first attempt at formal music by a modern jazz master, with strengths and weaknesses but still interesting to hear.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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