An Oratorio of History With History of Its Own

By the time of Wynton Marsalis’s 1994 oratorio, “Blood on the Fields,” written for three singers and a 15-piece band, his scale for musical structure and organizational planning was big and getting bigger.

He was 32 then. Jazz at Lincoln Center hadn’t yet become a constituent part of the larger Lincoln Center organization, and the idea of a dedicated theater for jazz hadn’t even been proposed. But he had already written extended works and had developed a framework for identifying and explaining jazz’s standards of excellence, and for linking the music to the history of black Americans and the notion of cultural survival. Never before had such power resided within one jazz musician, and those who doubted him wanted to be impressed on every possible level — especially after “Blood” won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for music.

In its latest rerun on Friday at Rose Theater — I saw the second night of a three-night stand — the band, conducted by Mr. Marsalis, put on a powerful and slightly streamlined version of a piece that once felt challengingly long and heavy. The singers tell a story of two slaves transported to America, Jesse (Kenny Washington) and Leona (Paula West), a man and a woman, a prince and a commoner. Jesse tries to escape, but is caught and brought back; with the help of a sage named Juba (Gregory Porter), he adjusts his view of the world, learns how to love both Leona and his new land properly, and by the end the couple prepare to seek freedom together.

Mr. Marsalis’s vocabulary is referential, but also intricate and cumulatively distinct. It has not been absorbed throughout jazz, which is probably why a 19-year-old piece of music remains strangely undated. “You Don’t Hear No Drums,” Jesse’s first song, and a theme that returns later, rested on careful, slow, contained New Orleans funk, with streamers of orchestrated dissonance. Mr. Marsalis’s trumpet solo toward the end of that song, when the rest of the band emptied out except for the rhythm section, grew battering and forceful. (He came out front again in “Back to Basics,” where he pulled articulated rips and chuckles from the horn among sections of melodic improvising over midtempo swing.) There was enough space here, too, for relative quiet and contemplation, like the lovely trickling countermelodies in “Will the Sun Come Out?,” leading toward an unaccompanied slow-blues by the pianist Eric Reed that made the audience talk back.

No major revisions have taken place. Even with strong new singers, “Blood” sounded much as I remembered it from the 1990s, if about 15 minutes shorter, with some solos and interstitial material cut. (Three of its principal soloists were still in place: Mr. Marsalis on trumpet, Mr. Reed on piano and Victor Goines on saxophones and clarinet.) But the time in between has made it a different listening experience.

At this point we really know what kind of composer the 51-year-old Mr. Marsalis is, rather than what any of us would like him to be. He loves dazzling surface strategies of harmony and counterpoint and timbral combinations; he stacks rhythms and reduces them to slow and contained stomps, played here by the drummer Ali Jackson with tambourine, kick drum and high-hat. He won’t undersell big ideas: he repeats and extends for effect, and parts of “Blood” still feel about a third too long. He often wants to tell the story of jazz and American music inside another story, so this one — about how love, the highest form of human flexibility, becomes the precondition for moving past slavery — comes with intimations of Ellington’s late suites, Mingus, Coltrane, the blues, spirituals and parade and string-band music. Mr. Marsalis is a big-gesture artist; that’s just the way it is.

Also, small-gesture artists don’t get theaters built to their desires. Rose Theater on Friday was as good as I’ve ever heard it. Every instrument rang warm, clear and true. Alice Tully Hall, in the ’90s, didn’t compare; neither does this work’s 1997 triple-disc recording on Columbia. The performance created the impression, at times, that this theater had been built in a retrospective molding to this band, and perhaps even this piece.

— Ben Ratliff
New York Times

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