08/30/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Ten Freedom Summers

Freedom and Listening... with the ear and the eye.

On Friday, August 30, the Chicago Jazz Festival marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with Ten Freedom Summers by Wadada Leo Smith, presenting excerpts from the innovative jazz work reflecting on the struggle for racial equality and freedom in the United States.

Freedom and Listening is the unbeatable combination of music, imagery and ideas driving Ten Freedom Summers as performed by Smith's Golden Quartet, the Pacifica Red Coral chamber ensemble, and visual/sound artist Jesse Gilbert.

This collection of work by Wadada Leo Smith, one of America's most creative jazz composer/performers, traverses the jagged path to freedom blazed by American heroes including Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Emmitt Till, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and events such as Brown vs. Board of Education, the March on Washington, and the life and legacy of MLK and JFK. Leaders, dreams and nightmares of generations are the signposts and sounds, images and dynamics, of this demanding yet electrifying work.

The quest to understand, experience and exercise freedom is at the core of the life work of jazz master Wadada Leo Smith. It is embedded in his music, his thinking, and his tight scoring as well as incisive improvisational methods. Born in Mississippi in 1941 he lived the story that runs through Ten Freedom Summers. "When you live in the South, you're constantly part of the civil rights movement," he told an LA Times reporter. Smith, an active participant in the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since the '60s, has created haunting music that applies sound as a lever for social change.

Smith describes elements of his methods sustained throughout his career:

"I'm an improviser, my music is for the improviser; in most cases my improvisations are conceived for multi-instrumentalists, for those who approach all of their instruments as one complete instrument, who perform on all of their instruments as if they were only one instrument.... [I use] an ensemble-orchestra form for improvisers.... the grouping together of more than one orchestra, more than one ensemble, or several orchestras with one or more ensembles in such a way as to preserve the autonomy of each improviser within a group, each group within the orchestra. and each improviser [within the whole]."

The tension between strict notation and improvisation, structure and impulse, unity and autonomy, streams through Smith's work. Freedom and Listening.

What is listening? How and what do we hear? These questions drive the exciting inventiveness of musician/visual artist Jesse Gilbert. The LA visual artist, sound and software designer, creates and sustains the visual soundscape of Ten Freedom Summers. Gilbert's dynamic imagery, whether elusively emerging, washing the musicians in color and form, or a driving force careening across the screens behind the musicians, places the observer in a visual relationship that both enhances and reflects on the process of listening. Gilbert's performance reveals the deep structure of sound in a visual language that is both intuitively and aesthetically linked to our emotional experience of the music.

Gilbert generates the live imagery using his own software, SpectralGL that employs an interactive software system to generate real-time 3D animation in response to live or recorded sound. Essentially, SpectralGL "listens" to sound (music) takes it in and with Gilbert's aesthetic interventions returns it to the listener/viewer in visual form. Ten Freedom Summers is layered with live visualizations of performed sound, digital video images of the live musicians, and iconic images from the historic struggle for freedom. Gilbert expands upon traditional notions of presentation of the moving image, and of the relationship between sound and image, bringing the music to the audience through a stream of multi-sensory experience.

Ten Freedom Summers, an opus work composed of seven and a half hours of music and 22 distinct compositions, is neither a chronology of events nor narrative; it is rather an abstract exploration of the psychology and emotions surrounding figures and events of the evolving struggle for freedom and democracy in the United States. The compositions are organized in three principal collections: "Defining Moments in America," "What is Democracy," and "Freedom Summers."

The Chicago performance will include "The March on Washington," "Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education," "September 11th," and "Emmett Till." Chicago's Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, with unrivaled outdoor acoustics and recently installed 40-foot-wide LED screen, provides an extraordinary opportunity to experience Ten Freedom Summers.

Ten Freedom Summers premiered in Los Angeles in 2011, and was released by Cuneiform Records in 2012. Wadada Leo Smith, widely recognized for his contribution to contemporary music, was most recently named 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist in music and Downbeat Magazine's 2013 composer of the year.

For more about the artists go to: Wadada Leo Smith with Visuals by Jesse Gilbert to be performed. The Chicago Jazz Festival presents excerpts from Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers, Friday August 30th @ the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 7:40 p.m. Performers include Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, Pacifica Red Coral chamber ensemble & visual/sound artist Jesse Gilbert. Free to the public.