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Improvocracy, or Improvising the Civil Rights Movement in Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers

Daniel Fischlin

Published: 2012-05-08

Improvising trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has consistently attended to the linkages between musical improvisation and social justice issues in his work over a long and remarkably productive career marked by a prodigious output of independently-minded music. Having recently celebrated his seventieth birthday by performing with six groups over two nights at Roulette in New York, he has also just released a milestone achievement—Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records, 2012)—dedicated to exploring through improvised and composed musicking the resonances of the American Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964. This four-CD set of nineteen pieces, totaling some four and half hours of music, is also a three-night performance event that uses videography (but no spoken word interjections) organized around three sections that oscillate between composition and improvisation. Smith’s searing, incendiary, clarion-clear trumpet provides a narrative line that sustains throughout.

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There is a curious yet enormously fruitful duality in the way that improvisation plays on our expectations and perspectives.

– Tracey Nicholls