‘Congo Square’ a dialogue of eras
When Wynton Marsalis rocketed to stardom in the 1980s, he seemed poised to enjoy a long career as a hyper-virtuoso trumpeter.
Though Marsalis remains a top-flight soloist, it’s his work as composer of epic scores that more deeply defines his art. Clearly, no one else in recent jazz history has produced a comparable list of vast compositions, including the thunderous “All Rise” (performed earlier this year by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), the incantatory “In This House, On This Morning” (a jazz evocation of a gospel church service) and the incendiary “Blood on the Fields” (the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, in 1997).
On Saturday night, Marsalis and two large but distinct ensembles brought his latest major work to the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park for its Chicago-area premiere. But “Congo Square” unfolded somewhat differently than one might have presumed.
Named for the sacred ground in New Orleans where African slaves were allowed to play otherwise forbidden drums and practice various cultural rituals in the 18th and 19th Centuries, “Congo Square” — by dint of its title — suggested a contemplation of the roots of jazz. The earliest chapters of the music, after all, first emerged in New Orleans, an obvious flowering of seeds planted in Congo Square.
But Marsalis’ evening-length score was hardly a nostalgic journey to the origins of America’s indigenous art form. Instead, it amounted to a bristling, brilliant dialogue between two epochs of black musical culture. The sounds of the distant past and the music of the 21st Century were speaking to each other throughout this majestic piece, as if Marsalis were communing with ancestral ghosts.
And by opening the piece with his own, fiery soliloquy about the man-made tragedies of post-Katrina New Orleans, Marsalis gave “Congo Square” political heft and urgency.
His use of two radically different ensembles — Yacub Addy’s percussion-vocal unit Odadaa! and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — emphasized the conversational aspects of this piece.
To hear the ancient chant and hand-held percussion of the Ghanaian ensemble Odadaa! riffing against the ultramodern music Marsalis penned for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was to view a single art form through two perspectives at once. The effect was stunning.
Never has the composer so explicitly bookended the history of jazz: Odadaa! gave voice to some of the earliest known African music, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra responded with unflinchingly contemporary blasts of sound. By assigning a 20th Century blues song to one of the Odadaa! vocalists and by occasionally giving the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra simple, folkloric riffs to play, Marsalis provided a bit of connective tissue between two glorious eras of black music.
– by Howard Reich, Tribune arts critic
Source: Chicago Tribune