Graded on a Curve: Wadada Leo Smith,
Rosa Parks: Pure Love

As we exit Black History Month and enter Women’s History Month, how about a new release that’s in direct dialogue with both sides of the transition? That recording would be trumpeter-composer-multitasking bandleader Wadada Leo Smith’s Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs, out now on CD through TUM Records. It offers Smith with vocalists Min Xiao-Fen, Carmina Escobar, and Karen Parks (distinguished here as the Diamond Voices), the RedKoral Quartet (contributing strings), the BlueTrumpet Quartet (featuring trumpets, natch) and the Janus Duo (consisting of drums and electronics), creating a work that’s approach to history is imbued with contemporary relevance.

Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs is an achievement of considerable ambition. Unsurprisingly so, as Wadada Leo Smith has become well-known for grandly-scaled works on topics of equal size. 2012’s 4CD Ten Freedom Summers, 2014’s 2CD The Great Lakes Suites, and 2016’s 2CD America’s National Parks are amongst his best-known recent thematic releases in a voluminous discography.

Grand of scale but eschewing sprawl and steeped in disciplined, focused intent; upon learning of this set’s imminent release, I had no doubts that Smith would engage in a suitably robust manner with the lasting significance of Rosa Parks, who he describes in his liner dedication as “a person of exceptional courage and wisdom, who made the right move of resistance at the right time.” Frankly, Smith consistently brings the goods, meaning his latest work would be something far greater than a tepid appreciation of “Rosa the tired.”

In his booklet essay, Franz A. Matzner usefully clarifies that Parks’ civil protest differed from how it is often remembered and sometimes still taught to children, specifically that it was just a spontaneous act by an exhausted and frustrated woman after a hard day’s work. Instead, Matzner makes clear that Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP.

A read into Parks’ biography illuminates that she was inspired by an earlier refusal by Montgomery teenager Claudette Colvin (on March 2, 1955) to vacate a bus seat. After Colvin’s arrest, Parks made her the secretary of the NAACP Youth Council, partly to strengthen her spirit amid harsh media attention and public scrutiny.

Due to her youth and the fact that the judge dropped all charges except assaulting the arresting police officers (meaning an appeal couldn’t directly challenge the segregation law), Colvin’s act wasn’t enough on its own to desegregate Montgomery’s busses. That’s why Parks stepped up and refused to move. It was an undertaking of deliberate resistance and assuredly NOT an impulsive flash of stubbornness (stripped of civil resistance and sanitized) that too many still believe it as.

Smith’s Rosa Parks isn’t an exercise in the didactic, though sung by Karen Parks, “Change it!” is a wonderful excoriation of the skewed representative makeup of the US Senate. Additionally, as this 71-minute work progresses, Smith is as invested in the right now as he is in the back then (how the back then relates to right now) and with added dedications to his family (this work was composed while on a healing vacation for his daughter Sarhanna after she was struck by a motorist) and to his early Chicago musical collaborators Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, and Steve McCall.

Snippets from Braxton’s ’69 solo sax LP For Alto, McCall’s drumming on Air’s ’77 album Air Time, Jenkins’ violin on Solo Concert (also ’77) and Smith’s own debut as leader, the ’71 set Creative Music–1 are integrated into the piece, though they don’t strike the ear as samples. Instead, they are part of a weave of personal remembrance and attention to the USA’s historical narrative. The presence of the excerpts surely deepens Rosa Parks, but perhaps the record’s strongest element is its structural baseline.

If honors to Parks run the risk of being informationally deficient, there’s also a possibility of tributes falling back onto civil rights-era musical touchstones, e.g. Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Now Suite, John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” and Max Roach’s We Insist! And hey, using precedent as a model could inspire results that are perfectly fine. Great, even. But Rosa Parks is a deeper shade of great due to its maker adhering to no expectations but his own.

That Smith chose the form of oratorio (a composition for voice and music with dramatic undertones, a la opera) should make clear he’s following his own path. Some might be thinking this trail is taking him far afield of jazz, though in fact Smith’s been branching out from the genre since his days as part of the Creative Construction Company.

Featuring Braxton, Jenkins, McCall, and Smith with the addition of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and bassist Richard Davis, the Creative Construction Company had two live albums released in 1976 by Muse culled from one performance in ‘70. The previous year the trio of Braxton, Jenkins and Smith recorded what would become Braxton’s Silence (not issued until ’75 on Freedom), and with McCall added, constituted the lineup for both of Braxton’s LPs for BYG/Actuel (issued in ’69-’70).

Rosa Parks does start out in recognizably jazzy mode (given that you’re familiar with the sound of the avant-garde), featuring the BlueTrumpet Quartet (composed of trumpeters Smith, Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin, and cornetist Graham Haynes) and drums (Pheeroan akLaff). They make a beautiful sound in “Prelude: Journey,” but then the RedKoral Quartet (violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violaist Andrew McIntosh, and cellist Ashley Walters) helps to usher in “Vision Dance 1: Resistance and Unity.” The music quickly reinforces the breadth of Smith’s experience.

Specifically, I was reminded of his past work in connection with Downtown NYC principals (John Zorn in particular) and European free improv figures. “Rosa Parks: Mercy, Music for Double Quartet” deepens this Euro feel with nods to modernist classical and through the strings, elements of drone. The trumpets insure that jazz doesn’t vacate the scheme; it’s just not constantly in the foreground, and that’s cool.

With “Song 1: The Montgomery Bus Boycott – 381 Days of Fire,” the spotlight tightens onto the RedKoral Quartet and Min Xiao-Fen, her vocals exquisite, as is her playing of the Chinese stringed instrument the pipa. It’s here that things turn decidedly operatic, but the effect registers as a solid extension and blossoming of the style rather than any kind of retreat into tradition.

This is in part due to gorgeousness of voice and strings (both plucked and bowed), these qualities extending into “Song 2: The First Light, Gold” as vocalist Carmina Escobar takes centerstage. It’s also down to Smith’s compositional acumen. Bluntly, at this point it’s difficult to envision Smith falling victim to a serious creative fumble, as his desire to take chances combines with assurance and a penchant for smart decisions to often-brilliant result.

“Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice and Liberation” features the Braxton and McCall recordings, and I’ll reiterate how subtly they’re integrated. The same also applies to the electronics of frequent Smith collaborator Hardedge (a.k.a. AACM alum Velibor A. Pedevski). While offering its own rewards within the context of the piece (which really should be approached as an uninterrupted whole), “Vision Dance 2” serves as a bridge between the first two songs and the next three, “Change It!,” “The Truth,” and “No Fear” as sung by Parks, Escobar, and Xiao-Fen respectively.

This stretch also gives cellist Walters, another of Smith’s go-to players, a chance to shine, though there’s nothing in the way of chops-strutting here. As heard in the double quartet mingling of “Vision Dance 3: Rosa’s Blue Lake,” heightened ability goes to the spirit of cooperation, which is wholly appropriate for a piece dedicated to civic engagement and collective resistance. Individuality isn’t suppressed of course, as illustrated by “The Second Light,” sung by Xiao-Fen, and the magnificent “Pure Love” as rendered by Parks, the last of the seven songs.

Between them, “Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa,” finds Smith and Haynes delivering a pair of splendid duets for trumpet (the full quartet is also heard). It’s in “The Known World: Apartheid,” and “Postlude: Victory!” that the music’s thrust again becomes tangibly avant-jazzy, though as throughout the piece, the stylistic shifts are executed with aplomb.

Conceived by Wadada Leo Smith and created by women and men both young and old with African-Americans, an Asian, a Latina, and Whites all paying tribute to one of the USA’s truly heroic figures, Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs is alive with the importance of history.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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