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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Wynton Marsaliss Blood on the Fields, Still Genius

A few weeks ago I had the experience—full of both promise and tension—of revisiting a piece of art that I once thought truly great. The fear, of course, is that such things cannot live up to your memory and hopes. Is anything ever as wonderful as it seemed when you first fell in love with it?

Ah, but some things are. Some things are sublime. Some things are sweeter over time.

cover artA First Love

Wynton Marsalis’s three-hour jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for music—a first for a jazz composition. I saw it performed around that time at Washington, DC’s Warner Theater, which was after it was debuted at Lincoln Center in 1994. I arrived at the concert with a dozen of my music students and insanely high expectations: I had been listening to the recording (featuring the voices of Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks, and Miles Griffith) for a while, and all three were on hand with the composer and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Our breaths were stolen.

Blood on the Fields was classic Marsalis: a work that was serious and wildly ambitious—and potentially a great heap of pretention. Marsalis set out to chronicle American slavery by telling the story of a couple, from their travels to the US over the Middle Passage to a brave defiance of servitude, to brutal punishment and hatred, to a form of transcendence, love, and eventual escape. The music, on the surface, was mainly Ellingtonian, but it also reached for a full history of jazz, from field hollers and blues, to Tin Pan Alley ballads, to the cries and rumbles of more modern, more free jazz. And the lyrics had little choice but to go right at the topic: addressing the physical pain of the slave ships, the dehumanization of slave auctions, the anger of black Americans as the country that was imposed on them, religion, and the absurdity of hope.

When I first heard it performed, I simply hadn’t heard a jazz musician in my lifetime try something at this level of difficulty. I’d heard brilliant solos, edgy combinations of tonality and atonality, strange instrumentations, all sorts of tricky stuff. But Blood on the Fields was trying something even more daring. Marsalis was trying to fly beyond the usual with a combination of tradition and experimentation while also addressing politics, history, and the internal human struggle. I mean, I was embarrassed just to like it, it was so potentially full of itself.

But I loved it. As weighty as it was, Blood on the Fields was melodic and fleet, with a huge array of different grooves. The singers were distinctive and ripe: Wilson’s mahogany contralto, Griffith bringing a desperate, raspy cry (“Yooooou don’t heeeeear no druuuums, womaaaaan!”), and Hendricks utterly himself in his cheek and his scatting even as he took on different characters. In concert, the band brought an amazing combination of gravitas and loose joy to their playing.

As I left the concert hall with the students, there wasn’t a soul among us who hadn’t traveled six thousand miles through the music that night. “My life just changed”, one student told me. Who could disagree? The Pulitzer was hardly enough recognition.

A Second Look

And then I didn’t listen to Blood on the Fields for about 15 years. Why? Perhaps because it is a three-CD box set. Perhaps because listening to just part of it seems silly. Perhaps because Wynton Marsalis’s standing since 1997 had both risen—he is the unquestioned Most Established Man In Jazz, King of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Composer of Many Crazy-Long Works—and also fallen. If Wynton once seemed like a youngish guy who was trying, audaciously, to bring jazz to the next level, in recent years he has seemed both nicked by time (dropped by a record label, for example) and a little stodgy.

Which isn’t exactly right. He and his band (and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) have been playing up a storm, collaborating (with Willie Nelson, with Eric Clapton, but also playing jazz, you bet), and educating. But still, I was getting along just fine without Wynton—and without remembering Blood on the Fields.

But when a weekend in New York coincided with the first performance of the work in more than 15 years, well… I went out of my way to get tickets. If only to find out if I was still in love.


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