Airless Ennui, Sheets of Sound: Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders at the Guelph Jazz Fest

September 11, 2013

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is, among dozens of other things, a musical evocation of the American civil rights movement, scaled to its subject’s full Homeric arc. The work’s 273 minutes expand far beyond what Bayard Rustin called the classical phase of that struggle, reaching back towards the Dred Scott case, forwards to September 11th, and encompassing such abstractions as democracy or the black church.

If Ornette Coleman is the foundational figure of the free jazz era, Anthony Braxton the most mercurial (tough competition), Smith could be its greatest composer, a trumpeter who makes every stray note sound deliberated. He wrote improvisational moments into the suite’s traditionally notated score, and absent any vocals—Ten Freedom Summers was recorded by the author’s usual quartet and an orchestral ensemble—they dance expressively around an austere mass, like light hitting a monument in just the right way. The piece “Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless” moves through several distinct sections, an ethereal cello solo yielding to violent, sudden and mounting intrusions by all the other instruments. It’s 18 minutes long. They pass at the distended pace of a fugue state.

Last weekend, I saw Smith and a quartet perform parts of Ten Freedom Summers at the Guelph Jazz Festival, which raised the question: How could this music enthrall me as a recording and frustrate me onstage? It wasn’t simple mistakes. Smith chooses players as carefully as he does melodic lines. His trumpet retained its complex keening. The beautiful notes were all still there, but too often they seemed collectively reticent, atomized, reducing passages of extraordinary stillness to airless ennui. The group only began sounding vital towards the end, when frantic bursts of improvised activity led to a solo that culminated in Anthony Brown drumming his own sticks.

The first explanation that came to mind afterwards was, despite some good acoustics, Guelph’s Riverrun Centre itself. Adorned solely by a pair of LED columns, the stage there resembles a spacious parking garage, maybe an interdimensional waystation. Shedding that classical ensemble probably also contributed to the crabbed, restrained atmosphere. And Smith never mentioned the literalist titles of his compositions, whether “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954,” or “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice,” contextualizing them and situating us with nothing more than a screensaver-ish video projection. Like bands playing beloved albums in their entirety, striving for extreme fidelity seemed to guarantee disappointment in various possible terms.

The second half of the double bill confounded expectations in a happier way. Another septuagenarian master—saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who first emerged on John Coltrane’s final albums and then played alongside his cosmic-minded widow Alice—continued his ongoing collaboration with Rob Mazurek’s Underground ensembles, one hailing from Chicago and the other from Sao Paulo. The result was almost alarmingly ramshackle, not least because Mazurek’s blaring trumpet tends to drown out other people onstage.

Sanders is best known for densely folded “sheets of sound,” and watching him play for brief intervals before granddad-dancing back to his seat, I wondered if he felt frozen out. Minutes would pass without the headliner doing much. But then, perhaps chastened, the band started giving him more sonic space, space filled with fascinatingly diffident cacophony, his sax flitting in and out of the groove. One sideman looped a cinematic six-note leitmotif (Mazurek also tends towards non-traditional noisemakers) that ended up metastasizing into the kind of polyrhythms you wish you weren’t hearing in a formal concert hall. It was slapdash compared to what we’d heard before, but that suited its context. At the ecstatic, chanted finale, Sanders wound up in his chair again, looking much more comfortable now. A shaft of light from above caught his intently held body. He seemed untethered to this antiseptic stage in Guelph, or our astral plane.

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Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.