Wadada Leo Smith Reflects on Civil Rights and Large-Scale Works

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Wadada Leo Smith returns with a new large-scale work, Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio Of Seven Songs (TUM), on Feb. 15.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

An early member of Chicago’s AACM and a master composer with 50 years of work behind him, Wadada Leo Smith returns Feb. 15 with Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio Of Seven Songs (TUM), a musical manifestation of civil-rights icon Rosa Parks, Smith’s family and his past comrades.

Smith recently talked to DownBeat about the concept of his upcoming musical offering, the history of oratorio and opera, as well as his early work with Steve McCall, Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

In 2012, you released Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), which was chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013. Did the success of that record inform this new piece?

Not really. That project was 30-something years in the making. If you look at my earlier output, for example, Divine Love, that’s a large project; it covers one side of a record. So, it’s not unusual or extraordinary that I write and compose long pieces. You could say it made an impact, but my thinking has always been [along] those lines.

In the album’s press notes, you said, “The oratorio is concerned with ideas and my meditation on the Civil Rights movement, and through lighting, photographs and video images, reconnecting history in the present.” Is this going to be a multimedia project?

Some people would call it that. It’s a project that involves staging, it has dance, it has singing in it, it has four difference ensembles. There’s a string quartet, there’s a brass quartet, there’s a duet with drums and electronics.

The overall imagery is from the video artist who shoots live footage of the performance, as well as the oratorio, and [projects live images atop] the historical photographs. But it transcends time and space in regard to Mrs. Parks and the present-day viewer.

What differentiates performances of this​ piece from opera?

It could be considered an opera. Opera comes out of the word “oratorio.” There were not operas before oratorios.

What usually distinguishes oratorios is that they are usually committed to saints and religious ideas, almost exclusively. If you look at my oratorio, it doesn’t have this about saints or religion. But it does have a notion about spirituality. It does have a notion about prophecy, because if you read the “Seven Songs,” one of them refers to African Americans rising out of this muck of degradation at some point, but it will be before the sun rises from the west. That reference is in most of the teachings of the Last Days of the Earth or the ending of the Earth.

Embedded in the oratorio are brief excerpts from your early work, like Creative Construction Company, which you were a part of 50 years ago. What prompted the inclusion?

Those are minor signatures. Nothing in there is more than 20 or 30 seconds. That’s done as a means of expression of my gratitude for those artists that I worked with early in my career—Steve McCall, Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton.

Even though this piece has a specific theme, you’ve been able to embed some personal ideas. How did everything gel for you?

The idea of the Creative Construction Company—and why those ideas are there—is purely because this work is dedicated to a large range of people. First, to Rosa Parks, secondly to my family, and it’s also dedicated to those three different artists. So, that’s the context in which Rosa Parks and the Creative Construction exist. Everything you see on the surface has roots, and everything you see outside the surface also has roots.

The first performance of this piece was in New York as part of the Festival of New Trumpet Music in 2016.​ ​What was it like to play the piece live?​

Actually, I recorded some of this music in 2016. There were three sessions: one in 2016 and a couple of sessions after that. There were two in New York City and one in California.​ ​Usually, those live performances, like the one that took place at the trumpet festival, was more of a way of trying to workshop the piece. When it was performed at that workshop, it only had five songs. So, two other songs were added after 2016.

How do you think the album will be received given the current political climate?

I would hope that people will in some way pay attention to the lyrics of the songs, and also realize who Mrs. Park was and what service she offered to humanity. And I would also hope people will listen to music that teaches and expresses ideas of tolerance. We don’t have that so much in the contemporary world, because in the contemporary world everybody is greedy. Everybody intends to offend, insult, degrade and limits people’s rights as human beings. It’s a world of evolutions of evil. So, even in climates like this, people can hear the truth and not realize they’re hearing it. DB



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