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September 1997

Wynton Marsalis and The Lincoln Center Orchestra
Blood On The Fields
Columbia Jazz

After much fanfare and acclaim, including its 1994 Lincoln Center premiere, subsequent fine tuning and 1997 international tour, and the momentous news that its composer Wynton Marsalis had been granted the coveted 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Music as a sort of crowning achievement for this painstakingly-crafted three-hour oratorio, now comes the real proof in the pudding: the release of this multi-CD chronicle of Marsalis' heroic work. Though the tour was extensive and a bit unprecedented for a jazz work of this magnitude involving the full jazz orchestra and vocalists its interpretation requires. This recording will stand as lasting testament and will be what future jazz observers utilize as the true measuring stick of its heroic importance in the jazz continuum.

Blood on the Fields is indeed a massive work, one that combines numerous elements of the black musical experience in America, including three or four shades of the blues, chants, field hollers, spiritual forms and liberal doses of New Orleans and Caribbean rhythmic traditions. Unlike a number of earlier extended forms for jazz orchestra, several of Blood On The Fields' movements stand on their own as viable vehicles apart from the whole. Execution of the work requires the full Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (which in the case of the touring ensemble engaged largely musicians under the age of 40), plus three stellar singers: acclaimed contralto Cassandra Wilson, vocalese master Jon Hendricks and spirited young Miles Griffith, known best for his gospel-flavored work in James Williams' ICU. Recorded in January, 1995, at a Masonic Hall in Manhattan, the sweep and nobility of the work has been largely achieved in the recorded medium.

The oratorio is a slave narrative, a continuum from slave ship to auction through the ordeal of the killing fields, as told through the voices of Ms. Wilson as the wise Leona, Griffith as the headstrong, wrathful prince Jesse and Hendricks as the sage and often humorous griot Juba. One of the work's more positive aspects is its use of the orchestra for more than instrumental backing and coloration of the vocals. Performing the instrumental work with great zest, the orchestra is also cleverly engaged as a speaking, chanting, singing Greek chorus, providing narrative bridges ("Jesse escapes again, this time with Leona.") and announcing proceeding steps in the storyline. This is clearly Marsalis' most fully-realized and extended form work, amply and appropriately recalling his mentor Duke Ellington, with a few piquant echoes of that other Ellingtonian, Mingus.

Perhaps Marsalis' greatest triumph here comes in his writing for voice as he largely achieves the objective of capturing the elusive sweet spot in each of the three voices, particularly the sensuous instrument of Cassandra Wilson. She is a magnetic presence throughout the work (though more so in the stage production than the recording) as she willfully and sensitively guides the evolution of Jesse ("I will not slave for any man..., I hate this land"), who initially rages of having once owned slaves himself, from outraged captive to insight, knowledge of self and love for this common woman, with her sagacity and gentle hand. Is this an evolution or a capitulation? You be the judge. One of the most-compelling passages involves Leona's wistful suggestion of hearing distant drums unseen, to Jesse's gruff rebuke "You Don't Hear No Drums." Wilson and Griffith's voices are quite complementary, as in their duet work on the title piece. His hands were obviously full with the ponderous tasks of composing this work and conducting its presentation; however, Wynton the instrumentalist left room for his momentous trumpet essay on the cleverly-titled "Back to Basics," replete with mute squawkin' and laughin'.

The slave narrative remains imposing and resonant in American history, and is adequately told by Marsalis. Let's say he is a librettist in development, as his composing skills are well-ahead of his narrative and lyric crafting skills (one rather prosaic moment finds Wilson singing "God Don't Like Ugly"). The work is not without its antecedents and references to familiar material. One wonders if "Love For Sale" comes to the listener's mind via Hendricks' mocking approximation of the slave auction ("I like my Negroes real simple, but plenty full of feeling...") "Soul For Sale," and there are echoes of "Motherless Child," yet this is a work that is clearly free of plagiarism: echoes, yes, theft...no indeed.

Originally published in September 1997
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