Wadada Leo Smith Headlines Edgefest 16 in Ann Arbor


Avant-garde composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith delivered a stirring midwest premiere of his magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers on November 2-3, 2012, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The occasion was the 16th annual Edgefest, a four-day festival of creative music at Kerrytown Concert House. Edgefest sits squarely at the nexus of improvised music and contemporary composition, ignoring, nay obliterating, any concern of genres and boundaries. This year’s festival only happened at all thanks to the super-human effort of Kerrytown Executive Director Deanna Relyea and her staff to scramble new travel arrangements for most of the performers, due to Superstorm Sandy. In the end, only one of 13 planned concerts had to be scrapped and Edgefest once again cast its bright light on some of the world’s most exciting and challenging music.

Composer/Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith (courtesy of wadadaleosmith.com)

The emotional and artistic centerpiece of Edgefest 16 was the performance by Smith and his Golden Quartet of selections from Ten Freedom Summers. This epic suite, composed by Smith over a 34 year period, focuses on the ten critical summers of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., from the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to the adoption of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it also addresses earlier causative events and later events affected by its wake. This monumental cycle for Jazz Quartet and Chamber Ensemble consists of 19 pieces running well over four hours. It was debuted in three concerts over three nights in  October, 2011 by the Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music under the direction of Artistic Director Jeff von der Schmidt, who has called Ten Freedom Summers “an African American Ring Cycle.”

For Edgefest, Smith chose the challenging strategy of performing excerpts of the suite in two concerts with only his quartet, instantaneously transcribing sections of the score typically played by the chamber ensemble. Although this approach made band communication at times a bit frantic, Smith and his bandmates drummer Pheeroan akLaff, bassist John Lindberg, and pianist David Virelles played with deep passion and immense power throughout. Lindberg was particularly effective, carrying much of the melodic load in the transcribed chamber passages, replacing an entire string section. Friday’s concert began with Dred Scott 1857. Lindberg and akLaff opened with a dark, brooding duet. Smith joined in a series of hard, pinched, staccato blurts on trumpet, soaring above them, verging into a growling trumpet interplay with piano over a barrage of drumming and heavily-plucked bass. Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz & The People of the Shahada featured a haunting Smith solo over nothing but tingling cymbals, then shifted into a duet on muted trumpet and bowed bass, a mournful elegy for a fallen hero. Also on Friday’s program were versions of September 11, 2001 and Rosa Parks. After the set, Smith spoke briefly from the stage about Ten Freedom Summers: “This music is about the Civil Rights Movement. We call it a movement, because it isn’t finished yet. This movement is about Human Rights, for all humans. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make, thinking the movement is just about rights for black folks. But it’s about rights for all of us. And we ain’t there yet. So I need you all to help me relight that torch.”

The Golden Quartet launched Saturday’s concert with a full-boil treatment of Brown v. Board of Education 1954. akLaff’s powerful broken military cadence solo on the drums led the way, soon peppered with piercing jabs from Smith’s trumpet. Lindberg joined in with heavily bowed bass flourishes, accompanied by Virelle’s roiling piano runs. The musical turmoil clearly reflected the social revolution unleashed by the Supreme’s Court’s momentous decision outlawing systematic school segregation. Next, an extended run at John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier & the Space Age, 1960 highlighted the optimism and hope of the 1960s followed by tragedy, played out in a fragile melody on muted trumpet echoed in deftly bowed ethereal sounds on the bass. Freedom Summer 1964 brought things to a spirited conclusion. Starting with a furious drum solo full of outrage by akLaff, they ended with the full quartet playing loudly and percussively until a sudden close.

Wadada Leo Smith with University of Michigan Creative Arts Orchestra (photo credit: Larry Dunn)

In addition to Ten Freedom Summers, Smith also performed two of his compositions for trumpet and large ensemble with the University of Michigan Creative Arts Orchestra. The 20-member all-student CAO, directed by UM professor composer/trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann, burned brightly on Smith’s Queen Hatshepsut and The Bell. It was clear that Smith, an educator himself at CalArts, was satisfied with the outcome of study sessions with the students earlier in the week.

The theme of this year’s Edgefest was Worldly Measures, providing a focus on the influences of global music cultures in contemporary composition and improvisation. The festival’s opening act on Wednesday, October 30, Baars-Henneman Duo, thoroughly exemplified the theme in a seemingly low-key performance that delivered a powerful velvet-covered hammer blow. Dutch performers Ab Baars on tenor sax, clarinet and shakuhachi, and Ig Henneman, viola, presented nine songs that were the essence of vibrant avant-garde music from Holland. Their songs were inspired by poetry about autumn, including works by Blake, Yeats, Apollinaire, and Japanese Haiku master Bashō. Their music is largely improvised on a composed structure of color and texture they create together in workshop form. Our favorite was Winter Comes to Hush Her Sound. Derived from a Charles Ives song, it opened with Ig lightly bow-tapping her viola. Ab followed by blowing deep quiet winter-wind howls through his shakuhachi, which Ig then echoed in sweeps on the viola. Eventually the music quieted and slowed, returning to the the faint bow-tappings, fading away. It evoked the aftermath of a snowstorm at our country home when everything is suddenly blanketed with snow, a hushed, serene silence.

Edgefest’s worldly focus next turned to Asian influences in a Wednesday concert by violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s Edge Quartet with Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, Ken Filiano on bass, and Andrew Drury on drums. On Hwang’s inventive compositions from their latest project, Crossroads Unseen, they played with the cohesion and precision of an ensemble with a strong intuitive sense of each others’ musical imaginations. Filiano and Drury laid out an endlessly riveting rhythmic foundation for adventurous sonic forays by Hwang and Bynum in solo and duet, as well as taking the lead at times with their own array of extended techniques. Hwang’s quartet returned for a Thursday set, augmented by Kerrytown’s own Deanna Relyea, this time in her guise as an operatic mezzo-soprano, and Ann Arbor saxophonist Piotr Michalowski. Their program, Lifelines, featured Relyea in a bravura sprechstimme performance of poems by David Singer, Patricia Spears Jones, and Lester Afflick set to music by Hwang. It was engaging to hear the quartet, plus Michalowski on sopranino, perform in this more constrained setting without loosing an ounce of their intensity or creativity.

Master Score for “Navigation Possibility Abstract 4” by Taylor Ho Bynum (photo credit: Larry Dunn)

Friday’s festival highlight was the return of Taylor Ho Bynum with his sextet cohorts Jim Hobbs on alto saxophone, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Bill Lowe on trombone and tuba, Ken Filiano on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums. Bynum, who was first mentored by bandmate Lowe and later by Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, is a composer of flexible works that, in his words “give a lot of agency to the performers to realize the piece in their own unique way.” Their entire set was devoted to a new piece, Navigation Possibility Abstract 4, which has a largely graphical score consisting of six sections. According to Bynum, “each section has two paths in and two paths out; it is up to the players to determine the order and duration of each section.” Halvorson led the way in with an eerie sequence on the guitar. Filiano and Taylor eased into the flow, followed by Hobbs with a jumpy skittish melody on alto. Then in came Bynum doubling the alto, slightly shifted, as Lowe entered echoing the guitar, and they segued into a two-on-two quartet. Someone held up a card indicating a decision to transition to another section, and off they went. It was fascinating to watch and hear this work evolve organically right in front of us.

Edgefest 16 was filled with other satisfying sets throughout the four days. Jaribu Shahid & Friends played a fiery and emotional tribute to the recently-deceased master saxophonist and stalwart of the Detroit creative music scene, Faruq Z. Bey. Particularly effective was the interplay between David McMurray’s visceral, gut-wrenching runs on tenor saxophone and Tony Holland’s mind-bending cerebral flights on alto and soprano. Pianist Fred van Hove provided a view into the creative music scene in Belgium with a non-stop improvisation including numerous preparation devices he dropped into the piano as he played. James Cornish Group presented the latest sounds emanating from Detroit. Native American singer/folklorist Mary Redhouse gave a unique program of chant and wordless singing, ably assisted by bassist John Lindberg. Ben Allison Band energetically fractured American movie music, skewering a few cultural and political icons along the way. Multi-reedist Mart Ehrlich brought down the curtain on Edgefest 16 with his Fables project of songs derived from American Yiddish theater.

Arlene and Larry Dunn are pure amateurs of contemporary music. Visit their blog at Acornometrics and follow them on Twitter: @ICEfansArleneLD.