Marsalis’s ‘Congo Square,’ With the Lincoln Center Orchestra

Posted on May 6th, 2006 in Review | Tags: congo square, jazz at lincoln center, jazz at lincoln center orchestra, new york, new york times, slavery, yacub addy

Wynton Marsalis has composed a number of extended works during his tenure as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, usually with the stated ambition of capturing some aspect of the African-American experience. On Thursday night at the Rose Theater, he conducted his latest such effort, “Congo Square,” featuring the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Odadaa!, a nine-piece Ghanaian percussion and vocal troupe.

Mr. Marsalis, who has been recovering from a lip injury, didn’t touch the trumpet during his new commission (because he conceived his role as conductor only, according to Jazz at Lincoln Center). But even with solo flourishes entrusted to various members of the orchestra, individual exertions aren’t the focus of “Congo Square,” a tribute to the swatch of old New Orleans that functioned as a site of ancestral dancing and drumming for African slaves during the city’s French and Spanish occupations and well into the 19th century.

Last August, Mr. Marsalis announced plans to unveil his new work on location, at the historic site on the outer fringe of the French Quarter in what is now Louis Armstrong Park. Four days after the announcement, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. In the ensuing months Mr. Marsalis, the most recognizable living instrumentalist from New Orleans, engaged in a flurry of recovery efforts for the city.

In the same spirit, he expanded the plans for “Congo Square”: its premiere two weeks ago was a centerpiece of the annual French Quarter Festival. And it concluded a weeklong New Orleans residency by Mr. Marsalis and his organization, which then took the composition on the road before bringing it home this week.

The band’s recent time in New Orleans may have had something to do with the power of “Ring Shout,” the first of 14 movements in the suite. Its opening was the essence of simplicity: Herlin Riley walked onstage striking a tambourine. Then Mr. Marsalis leaned into a microphone to strike up a call and response with members of the orchestra.

Things quickly became topical. “Oh Lord, Katrina and the water flowed,” Mr. Marsalis sang, in an unpolished but soulful voice. “Folks got to cryin’ when the levee broke.” A later riff invoked the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross, bemoaning deception and greed.

When the vocalizing ended, and the band kicked in, there was a sense of uplift and release. This was partly due to the arrangement, a glancing evocation of New Orleans brass bands; it was also due to Odadaa! and its polyrhythmic drive, illuminating the undercurrent of African rhythm in New Orleans second-line grooves.

Yacub Addy, the leader of Odadaa!, founded the group in the early 1980’s, after moving to the United States. But he has preserved the traditional sound of his native Ghana, which is what appealed to Mr. Marsalis; “Congo Square” is described as a collaborative product of both artists.

Their equal partnership was clear at choice moments: on a mambolike section called “Sunday Market,” during a churning “Place Congo” and in “Logo Talk,” which featured a steady cowbell pattern but an otherwise mercurial arrangement.

At other times, the two ensembles functioned independently. This was occasionally intentional and effective — Odadaa! could be entrancing on its own, especially during vocal exchanges led by Obuamah Laud Addy — but it was often because things just didn’t click.

Mr. Marsalis still takes compositional cues from Duke Ellington: there were bursts of brass, sweeping reeds and intricate internal harmonies. But there were also a few experiments in timbre, involving flutes, clarinets and muted horns. The orchestra was invariably up to the task.

What was missing, notwithstanding a saccharine ballad sung by Imani Gonzalez of Odadaa!, was a strong melody. That deficiency became more of a liability as “Congo Square” approached and passed the two-hour mark. The suite could be trimmed significantly and still pack a serious punch. But even then it might feel less than suitelike: a patchwork rather than a fabric.

by Nate Chinen
Source: The New York Times