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Long a reliable and prolific member of the jazz avant-garde, trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith has, at 77, delivered what has all the earmarks of a magnum opus. Unfortunately, Rosa Parks: Pure Love, which Smith categorizes as an oratorio, collapses under the weight of its artistic ambition.
The album’s 72 minutes are weighty and lugubrious, laden with obtuse melodies and didactic lyrics sung by three women (Min Xiao-Fen, Carmina Escobar and Karen Parks) in an experimental, operatic style that does not readily call to mind the African-American experience during the civil rights movement. This is not to suggest that Smith is obligated to get all churchy/bluesy based on an album title, but skewing toward European-influenced “new music” is, at the least, perplexing. In fact, perplexing is an apt way to sum up the entire project. Dense and tiresome will do, as well.
Imagine a stridently operatic singer slogging her way through these words — “We have not a democracy/When 28 states have 56 senators/California only two” — as a string ensemble swells underneath.
Rosa Parks actually starts out fairly promising, with a brief, discordant fanfare performed by the Blue Trumpet Quartet (Smith, Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes) along with the free drumming of Pheeroan akLaff. Soon, though, the RedKoral string quartet elbows the horns away, and then largely dominates the instrumental passages thereon.
The compositions’ melodic and harmonic movements are glacial, delving deeply into texture, creating an album-length, dirge-like sameness that, in its most extreme, can be maddening.
The oratorio does contain a couple of trumpet duets between Smith and Haynes, and some snippets of free improvisation — as well as recorded excerpts by early Smith cohorts Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall — but these interludes are little more than teases, failing to provide much-needed jolts of vitality.
Here’s to hoping that Smith has gotten his Grand Statement out of his system. —Eric Snider
Featured photo by Michael Jackson.