Blood On The Fields
Considering the time demands of being the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, all around spokesperson for the theory of Blues Plus Swing Equals Jazz, and from time to time, leading his own group, one would think that the 35 year-old Wynton Marsalis' plate is full.
Well, maybe he has some room.
In advance of the long awaited CD, Wynton presented his ambitious jazz libretto Blood on the Fields on a multi-city tour including a stop at his home court, Lincoln Center's Avery Fischer Hall. Certainly no stranger to the extended form, as evidenced by 1994's In This House On This Morning, and 1990's Citi Movement,
Wynton has attempted with "Blood" something much more ambitious and risky. This is a 3 1/2 hour libretto which deals with the experience and legacy of slavery and one's ability to use this aspect of Afro-American and American history as a form of liberation. Wynton has said that this work is not about slavery per se, but instead about the process one undergoes to become an American. Well then this project IS about slavery. To separate the two runs very close to trivializing that "peculiar institution:" Afro-Americans became Americans by way of such notorious avenues like the middle passage, which is brilliantly addressed in musical form at the beginning of this performance. Whether or not the words black or white are used is of relatively little importance.
Considering the public and private battles with Wynton that have centered around the role and agency of race in jazz music, this project carries with it even more risk with critics and musicians alike. The piece begins with an African man and woman, played by vocalists Cassandra Wilson (who sounded great and was a fine choice for this role) and Miles Griffith (who has worked with a variety of artists including James Williams' Intensive Care Unit) arriving on these shores after the horrifying, captive journey. Wynton makes great use of the Orchestra here, creating a dissonant cacaphony to accompany the story line and text. As the house lights were kept on for the duration of the performance, audience members could easily read the script or text that they were handed upon entering the hall. The group, featuring Marsalis' longtime partner Herlin Riley on drums, Rodney Whittaker on bass, Farid Barron on piano, and a fine horn section featuring trumpeter Marcus Printup and altoist Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson sparkled and sizzled throughout. Somewhat strangely cast was Jon Hendricks, who played the wise man in the guise of a fool.
However, after 3 1/2 hours, there were no memorable melody lines, and a sense that a clear direction was lacking. This problem seems to occur with great frequency when dealing with Wynton's compositions. Putting aside the endless series of debates surrounding the trumpeter, this complaint is commonplace. Wynton did answer another common gripe about his performances which is that his playing and writing lacks a sound unique to him, that he is playing a pastiche of sorts. This is actually somewhat understandable, considering his admirable role as one of the leading jazz educators in the country. However, with "Blood" this criticism was answered in the form of a clearly identifiable, Wyntonesque sound: The doubling of the piano's left hand with the bass figure is accompanied by a polyrhythmic, higher register drum sound. This pattern has appeared in a variety of Wynton's work but is now much more clearly pronounced.
Another highlight was Wynton's ability to make the band sound like a banjo during a field scene, and his decision to use violinist Regina Carter in a beautiful, haunting duet with pianist Barron. How about more of that next time? All in all, "Blood on the Fields" should be applauded for the effort, but it still feels like a work in progress, one which I hope to get a chance to see in the future.