Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, the 70-year-old American trumpeter, composer and teacher, has spent more than three decades composing the four-and-a-half hours of music on this set, inspired by the freedom struggles of African-Americans since the 19th century. Smith's London appearances with local musicians this week have been all-improv encounters, but the huge work on these recordings (premiered in Los Angeles over three evenings last October) join the trumpeter's exciting small band with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummers Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra, and Southeast Chamber Music's nine-piece classical ensemble. These variously spiky and solemn pieces shift through Miles Davis-like muted-horn slow-burns, a loose, Art Ensemble of Chicago feel on Thurgood Marshall and Brown v Board of Education (the titles often name key historical episodes), romantic classical strings swirls on Black Church, and rugged, almost swing episodes such as The Freedom Riders Ride. The jazz and classical groups play separately and sometimes merge, and though conventional themes or sustained pulses are mostly sidelined by the languages of free jazz and contemporary classical music, this epic life's work is a landmark in jazz's rich canon.
John Fordham is the Guardian's main jazz critic. He has written several books on the subject, reported on it for publications including Time Out, Sounds, Wire and Word, and contributed to documentaries for radio and TV. He is a former editor of Time Out, City Limits and Jazz UK, and regularly contributes to BBC Radio 3's Jazz on 3