Marsalis mixes it up

Posted on April 14th, 2006 in Profiles & Interviews | Tags: congo square, jazz at lincoln center orchestra, slavery, yacub addy and odadaa

Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra celebrate his native New Orleans next week with the premiere of Congo Square, an 80-minute composition co-written and performed with Ghanian drum master Yacub Addy and his nine-piece ensemble, Odadaa!
The performance April 23 at New Orleans’ namesake Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park is part of a weeklong residency aimed at helping the healing process in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged city. There also will be free concerts, master classes, workshops and exhibits throughout the week in conjunction with the French Quarter Festival. It is the first time Marsalis has ever played there with the orchestra.

Then they’ll begin a six-city tour before returning to New York for a New Orleans Festival at Jazz at Lincoln Center. As part of it, Congo Square will be performed May 4-6.

Congo Square is inspired by the square where slaves gathered on Sunday afternoons from the 1700s to the mid-1800s to perform African music and dances. That music was banned and the playing of it was punishable by death in the British colonies and later the United States. But New Orleans, which was a French colony before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, was the only place where it was allowed until a mid-century ban.

“Because of the stifling ignorance and racism, they were unable to accept the greatness of what took place in Congo Square,” Marsalis says. “But it’s been a gift that we’ve all enjoyed in any form that has bass and drums in it.

“It was one little desperate outpost of soul.”

Marsalis says jazz grew out of the spirit of Congo Square, and his composition brings two types of music together. He says he and his musicians have struggled at times trying to play along with the complex drum rhythms of Odadaa!, but he’s learning, thanks to Addy’s prodding. Bassist Carlos Henriquez, who is well-versed in Latin rhythms, also has helped bridge the gap.

The piece will be done in several parts to reflect the different aspects of the square and will uniquely combine different music.

“We are actually going to try to play with them,” Marsalis says. “It’s not going to be where you put a 6/8 (time signature) rhythm on something and just play on a vamp, which is what normally happens when you say African jazz. We are trying to actually get inside the bell patterns that they play and play music that goes with those.”

Marsalis, who is on several committees to help restore New Orleans, says he’s sure the city will bounce back. He says he was amazed 12 years ago when he visited Hiroshima at how the Japanese city had recovered from World War II’s nuclear devastation. The same is possible in his hometown, he says.

“We come with a balm,” he says. “We’re not coming to gawk and look around. We are coming to make people feel better about who they are, and that we are going to continue no matter what our circumstances. And we are going to continue with style.”

By Steve Jones