No one alive bore first-hand witness to the music played by African slaves in pre-Civil War New Orleans and, of course, no recordings exist. So the most Wynton Marsalis could have hoped to accomplish with his ambitious, two-hour, 14-movement Congo Square suite was not to approximate that unknown music but to evoke its spirit. Working solely with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra would not have done the trick. But by augmenting and juxtaposing the Western ensemble with Odadaa!, a nine-piece Ghanaian-rooted troupe of percussionists and vocalists led by septuagenarian Yacub Addy (who has been New York State-based for a couple of decades), Marsalis was able in their co-composed work to chart the emergence of modern American music by calling attention to the well from which it spouted.
This 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival performance, presented in its entirety without commentary (which would have been a valuable addition), is an ever-lively, multi-hued affair, rich in its historical implications and the parallels it draws: Watching and listening to the two entities collide and contrast, it’s not difficult to understand where jazz’s intrinsic freedom derived from. Congo Square (now a section of Louis Armstrong Park) was the only place where slaves were allowed to congregate and express themselves, and if the sparks generated by Odadaa! here are at all indicative of the feverishness that must have engulfed that small spot on the city’s map until the gatherings came to an end, the inevitability of jazz is put into greater perspective.
Marsalis’ role here is more facilitator than focal point. Although he takes the occasional solo and sometimes joins the trumpet section, he spends as much, if not more, time conducting, dancing in place and basking. Not at first though—only a few minutes into “Ring Shout,” the introductory number, Marsalis is disarmingly rapping abut Katrina (“Shame on FEMA, shame on the Red Cross, shame on the administration, all over this land”), threatening to go hokey. But by “Libation,” the third track, patterns are established as the orchestra—often more Ellington than Armstrong—comes out swinging and the Africans ramp up the rhythm and bring on the funk.
Solos, though they arrive frequently enough, are a negligible component of the performance. More important are the bridges erected. In “Adjeseke,” call-and-response vocal led by Obuamah Laud Addy cozies up to rolling piano and brass comping, while in “Hedzole Baba,” Odadaa!’s hammering, polyrhythmic drumming gives the orchestra reason to kick up the swing an extra notch. “Place Congo,” all bustling, cowbell-powered, drum-circle rhythm; and “Logo Talk,” with its synced hand drums and chanted vocals, blasts of trombones and traps, and orchestral bursts, come closest to achieving the synthesis Marsalis had in mind.
Only “It Never Goes Away,” with its English-language pop/blues vocal by Cynthia Gonzalez, feels wrong, a gratuitous nod, perhaps, to those audience members who expected an orchestra to do what orchestras do. And “Sanctified Blues,” some 15 minutes of tropical sway, drags the proceedings toward the end. But unlike many of Marsalis’ creations, Congo Square gains currency from its imperfections. Its aspirations are higher than flawlessness.