Jazz has, at heart, been a political form for decades, with composers as varied as Duke Ellington and John Coltrane issuing unmistakable, if nonverbal, clarion calls. This ambitious program — unveiled, not coincidentally, on the eve of the presidential election — upped the ante by overlaying an array of commissioned pieces with spoken-word ele-ments culled from speeches by activists and thinkers from around the world.
Balancing those two elements proved to be a tricky proposition at the premiere of “Let Freedom Swing.” The speakers were uniformly successful in conveying the spirit of the source material, and the composers by and large mirrored the tenor of the words they’d been asked to illuminate. Often, though, there was something of a disconnect when the two collided, making for interplay that was more tennis match than ballet.
The program did have its share of happy marriages. Emil Viklicky cloaked the writings of Vaclev Havel in two distinctly different garments — a slinky, flirtatious raiment to accompany an early work and a gray, bluesy fleece that provided a huddling place for a prison letter af-forded a witty reading by Mario Van Peebles.
Jimmy Heath did an even more impressive job in crafting a multifaceted piece to comple-ment a Lyndon Johnson speech that, on paper, would have seemed exceedingly dry. But thanks to Heath’s sumptuous composition — one part sweeping ballad, one part bebop wink — the message practically leapt into the aud.
Wynton Marsalis, stationed at the back of the bandstand, massaged that piece’s melody lovingly and brought an appropriate sense of turmoil to the passage Billy Childs wrote to attend the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But at times, he and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra seemed content to provide what was essentially incidental music.
There was little passion in the orch’s handling of Darius Brubeck’s program-opening com-position, which slipped along stealthily, almost as if calling attention to the music would have diminished Morgan Freeman’s reading of Nelson Mandela’s words. Toshiko Akiyoshi took a similar approach to the Eleanor Roosevelt speech she chose to illustrate; the instrumental passages of that piece were well-mannered to the point of making virtually no impression.
In its best moments, “Let Freedom Swing” affirmed the adage that politics can make for strange bedfellows. It would have accomplished its goals more effectively, however, if said bedfellows actually recognized that they were bunked down together.