‘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

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  1. Hello All,

    Attended the Congo Square concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival last night and was mesmerised. Music is supposed to rekindle your spirit, make you wanna dance, appreciate talent and musicianship, this concert had it all, I have never attended a concert that was as entertaining, mixed with high drama and at such a high musical level. I cannot pay a higher compliment than to say I was moved. I cannot wait for the DVD.

    Nick Lakoumentas on Jun 29th, 2007 at 10:16am

  2. Dear All,
    How can we get a hold of “Congo Square”? It is hot and spiritual!



    Brian Dickson on Jun 27th, 2007 at 11:02am

  3. Great stories resulting from the performances of Congo Square! When we first heard it I thought the collaboration was nothing less than astonishing. Hope y’all are having a good summer, Jurzy glad you’re back, we’re taking off again …and again! Keep safe during travels everybody. Luigi, the new site is just beautiful. Congratulations! Glo.

    gloria on Jun 27th, 2007 at 8:14am

  4. This past weekend, our family attended a concert on Wynton’s most recent tour. The venue was the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail, Colorado. If you haven’t attended an event at this venue, you should consider doing so. It was our first time there and it is a wonderful and fairly intimate setting. This was also our first Wynton Marsalis concert. Our son, Matthew, has played trumpet since middle school. While he took private lessons from a couple of instructors over the next few years, he eventually discovered a wonderful trumpet teacher. This new teacher and Matt established a close relationship based upon their love of the instrument and those who could play it at the professional level. His teacher was a huge Maynard Ferguson fan and our son’s ultimate inspiration was, and is, Wynton Marsalis.

    Matt has continued to play trumpet even after moving to Boulder, Colorado where he is majoring in aeronautical engineering at the University of Colorado. As a birthday gift, we gave Matt tickets to see Wynton on his latest tour featuring his new work – Congo Square. We really didn’t know what to expect as Wynton has perfected so many different styles of music from classical to jazz and everything in-between. What we experienced was a wonderful blend of Ghanaian drum rhythms and vocals seamlessly intertwined with jazz ranging from modified America Jazz all the way to good old New Orleans jazz. If one were to think about combining the heart of Ghanaian music with a wide variety of American jazz, you would be hard pressed to imagine such a composition as being pleasing to the ear – let alone an entire cantata of sorts that weaved a story about a specific location – Congo Square.

    Well, the music does just that, sweeping you to different locations and creating musical visual snapshots of Congo Square at various points in time. It was truly amazing to hear how effortlessly the two genres of music blended together. And, finally, to hear Wynton, with the plunger, play and “talk” to us through his music was truly a gift. The concert ended with the entire ensemble standing at the stage’s edge playing “unplugged” to the audience of approximately 2400 in attendance. To close the performance, the group formed a New Orleans style parade with the Ghanaian drum troupe in the lead and Wynton’s ensemble following. This is how the concerted ended – at least we thought – with the group off the stage playing in the distance. Truly amazing!

    I’m sure others who have attended Wynton’s concerts have made similar comments about the Congo Square work; however, this was not to be the end of a perfect evening. The pinnacle of our experience was getting to meet Wynton. As I said earlier – Wynton is my son’s inspiration. Matt has performed a few of the same pieces that Wynton has recorded and, like Wynton, shares easily with others his love of music and the trumpet. As instructed in your email, we went back stage and were immediately greeted by a person who appeared to be coordinating the after-concert reception. Although I can’t recall her name, we were greatly appreciative of all that she did for us. After telling her that we were supposed to be on “the list” to meet Wynton, she took us into a staging area outside of the green room.

    The entire ensemble was in the green room but, to our surprise, they quickly emerged again playing the same New Orleans Jazz piece that they played during their exit. They paraded past us and onto the stage where they, once again, circled the staged in New Orleans style fashion to the thrill of the audience. Our “lady in white” took Matt as “her guest” onto the edge of the stage where he could take in the remainder of the performance. The musicians then marched past us and back into the small staging area. Wynton and the group then formed a circle in the staging area as they finished playing. It appeared to be a small respite, a time of recharging, and a time for them to enjoy the music they created. It was obviously a time for them alone without the presence of an audience. When they finished, another cheer went up from the crowd that was left in the auditorium. At this point, the ensemble went back into the green room.

    We were the only ones left in the staging area. Again, our lady in white came to our rescue saying “You can go ahead into the green room – Wynton is over in the corner talking to some other people.” We did so and watched as each had a brief conversation with him. Wynton also graciously autographing an album (yes, an LP!). Finally, the last young lady who we discovered later was from Ecuador, talked briefly to Wynton and asked if he would sign the only thing she had – her passport. He hesitated and then asked “This won’t cause you any problem by having me sign it, will it?”, a very thoughtful question for him to ask. Finally, it was Matt’s turn to talk to Wynton Marsalis.

    As he walked up, Wynton looked at him, pointed a finger and said “Let me guess, YOU are a trumpet player – am I right?” To which Matt replied “Yes sir, I am”. The next few seconds were magical for Matt, his mother and I. Wynton grabbed Matt and gave him a big hug! Amazing. The two proceeded to talk and we could hear Matt very quietly tell Wynton, “You are the reason I keep playing. Every time I pick up my horns, I try to sound like you.” Wynton responded graciously and then turned Matt around so I could take his picture with him.

    I was touched by the utter humility, honesty and genuine openness that Wynton displayed with those brief comments. Here we were, standing before one of the greatest performers of all times and HE was humbled by Matt’s comments. We spent another few moments with him and then it was over, as quickly as it had begun and we walked back to our car for the long drive home. However, Matt wasn’t walking – he was floating.

    In this day of all-too-frequent egocentrism and superiority that we often see displayed by “famous people’, what a breath of fresh air is Wynton Marsalis! He is truly someone that we have to look up to, admire, and put on a pedestal. Better yet, we know that we won’t ever be disappointed that we did. Well, as for Matt, my wife and I, he’s now at the top of our list. – THANKS Wynton for being the class act that you are.

    Robert W. Manning on Jun 27th, 2007 at 6:33am

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