History joins with melody on Big Easy stage
NEW ORLEANS — “More soaring, more powerful,” Wynton Marsalis told the brass section. “I need more freedom in the music.”
He leaped out from behind the conductor’s music stand, ran around the two dozen musicians assembled on stage and demonstrated what he meant with a fierce growl of his trumpet. Stage right, crouching behind a pair of conga drums, Yacub Addy smiled.
Saturday’s session at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts marked the end of preparation for “Congo Square,” a collaboration between Marsalis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz titan, and Addy, a 75-year-old Ghanian drummer who for the past dozen years has made his home in the Capital Region.
The two musicians will come together again this afternoon, joined by their performing ensembles — Addy’s percussion-based Odadaa! and Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra — for the world premiere of “Congo Square” at a free outdoor performance in the historic square itself.
Marsalis’ wish to hear more freedom in the music stands in counterpoint to the grim history of Congo Square: There was a time when it was the only place where New Orleans’ slaves were free to perform their traditional music and dance.
For signs of grim history of a more recent vintage, all a visitor has to do is step outside the arts center.
Eight months after Hurricane Katrina and the days of flood and crisis that followed, blue plastic tarps cover thousands of roofs — and those are just on the buildings that remain standing. Take a walk down Canal Street and you can still see the 4-foot-high waterline on the walls of such boarded-up downtown landmarks as the Saenger Theatre.
But with the arrival of spring, there are signs of rebirth. On Saturday, the city held its first mayoral election since the disaster — even if the scattering of New Orleans’ residents forced the mayoral candidates to take their campaigns to several nearby states in order to reach thousands of absentee voters.
New Orleans is famous for many things, from Mardi Gras celebrations on Bourbon Street and the wild nightlife in the French Quarter to fabulously rich cuisine. But perhaps more than anything else, the Crescent City is world-renowned for its musical heritage.
Marsalis, a favorite son who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for the city’s rescue, is hoping that “Congo Square” serves as both a tribute to that heritage, and a way to ensure that it continues.
Tracing back music’s roots
“I knew about New Orleans and Congo Square long before I came to the United States, and I’ve always imagined the music that was played there,” Yacub Addy said last week during an interview in the living room of his small, unassuming home on a Latham cul-de-sac. On the wall behind him hung a framed photograph of Addy and Marsalis on stage together.
Many music historians describe the square — in what’s now known as Louis Armstrong Park on Rampart Street — as the birthplace of American jazz.
“Without the Congo Square music, the slave music, there is no jazz or blues. This is the root of jazz — this drum,” said Addy, sitting down on a large wooden cube and tapping the skin stretched tightly across its front.
“And this one, too,” he added, pointing to a cylindrical clay drum painted white. “I believe that the majority of the slaves in New Orleans at that time came from West Africa, and these are the same kinds of instruments that the slaves played in Congo Square many, many years ago.”
Co-written by Addy and Marsalis, the new 80-minute cross-cultural opus attempts to fuse together traditional African rhythms and chants with American jazz.
“It’s been very interesting to bring our different grooves together,” Marsalis, 44, said at a news conference at Basin Street Plaza on Monday. “I think (‘Congo Square’) is different than anything that’s been heard before.”
Odadaa! first teamed up with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several concerts in New York City in 2003. Addy also has joined Marsalis at several of the trumpeter’s recent Capital Region concerts. (Marsalis is slated to play Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady on Tuesday, June 13, on a bill with his fellow New Orleans greats the Neville Brothers and Dr. John.)
But “Congo Square” is their first full-scale collaboration, and it’s been years in the making.
“When Wynton visited my home three years ago,” Addy recalled, “the first thing that I asked him was, ‘What kind of music did they play in Congo Square? Do you know that music?’ He looked in my eyes and said, ‘I know.’ I said, ‘Then let’s put it all together.’ “
Sound, style come together
Commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center — where Marsalis serves as artistic director — “Congo Square” had its actual genesis at The Egg in Albany, where Marsalis held preliminary rehearsals with Addy and the half-dozen members of Odadaa! one afternoon in early January.
During that initial session, Marsalis seemed to wrestle with isolating each of the complex, interwoven rhythmic patterns the percussionists were playing. (“It sounds so simple, so natural,” he said at one point, “but there’s nothing easy about it; there’s so much going on.”)
Last week, Addy laughed as he recalled the early difficulties that the nine-time Grammy winner experienced as he grappled with Odadaa!‘s richly textured African music.
“But now he’s got it,” said Addy, who teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. “It is very difficult for American musicians to follow the music that we are playing. It is very complex.
“But Wynton is a very fast learner, and he’s doing really good. It’s sounding beautiful, really beautiful.”
“Congo Square” was scheduled to debut in New Orleans long before Katrina hit. Now, in this city of blue tarp roofs and plywood windows, the concert is much more than just another musical premiere.
“New Orleans is the foundation of jazz,” said Addy, who has performed several times with Odadaa! at the city’s annual Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“We hope that this music is a step toward bringing New Orleans back from the disaster of Katrina,” he said in a quiet voice. “The spirit of New Orleans will come back.”
by Greg Haymes