A sold-out Masonic Auditorium expected grand-scale musicality from Wynton Marsalis' oratorio on slavery, Blood on the Fields. Nearly three hours long, the 21-part suite did not disappoint in terms of sheer breadth. But the magnitude of the enterprise and the gravity of the subject matter couldn't mask a vision impaired by the composer's iron grip on every nuance of the performance.
Spectacle was everything. From the bright, balanced mix of the 14-piece Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (of which Marsalis is artistic director, conductor, and lead trumpeter), to the elegantly tuxedoed band members, to the date of the concert (at the start of Black History Month), this Bay Area premiere reeked of impeccable presentation. Underscoring the ultrasavvy setup, San Francisco Jazz Festival promoters even enlisted the ever smartly attired Mayor Willie Brown to serve as "gree-tahh."
An intensely focused Marsalis led the LCJO and triple-threat vocalists Jon Hendricks, Cassandra Wilson, and Miles Griffith through an evenly paced, intricately scripted arrangement bound to the fundamentals of jazz tradition: blues, ballads, and swing. The leader's New Orleans heritage loomed large in the lowdown blues shouts from clarinet, trombone, tuba, saxophone, and plunger-muted trumpet. But quite a few solos lacked the kind of fire that only comes from spontaneity -- a crucial jazz component barely employed in this extended piece.
Of course, when directing such a lengthy composition, keeping the solo spots concise becomes necessary. But the rigidity of the game plan cut short bursts of promising improv from the youngest players. More seasoned improvisers like trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and saxophonist Wess Anderson (who are developing leaders in their own right) had no trouble hitting full stride in one or two choruses. Yet even during exuberant collective blowouts when it felt like the sky had parted and heavenly light was pouring down upon us, every note seemed under the tight control of the conductor.
It's well known that Marsalis doesn't tolerate grandstanding (he allegedly booted ferocious showboat James Carter out of the LCJO for basically kicking too much ass), and in the traditional big band, everyone onstage concedes that the individual has to take a back seat to an ensemble interpretation of the score. From the first notes of Blood on the Fields, this was clearly Marsalis' show -- swing and blues according to his book (aka Sweet Swing Blues on the Road, his 1994 literary debut).
Every Wynton Marsalis program comes across with a calculated slickness; it's his style. As a proselytizer of conservative values and a high-profile educator, the 35-year-old Juilliard/Art Blakey alumnus wants to elevate the image of jazz music in order to teach children the cardinal truths and to win back respect and popular appeal from the common folk.
Lap-dog establishment critics like Stanley Crouch fawn over his technical mastery, while new-music innovators chide his single-minded perspective (Marsalis is notorious for assailing the avant-garde in the media). Still, Dave Douglas, top horn player from the other side of the stream, has publicly acknowledged that "Wynton is the most amazing trumpeter out there," because, quite simply, it's true.
Despite Marsalis' regrettable politics, lofty ideals, and loftier bid for Ellingtonian greatness with this megawork, Blood on the Fields managed to capture the woeful, hopeful heart and soul of the African experience in America as embodied in Negro spirituals. The composer's libretto addresses slavery through an uplifting parable of love and soul power. Logically, the thematic battle cry is freedom, ultimately found "in the trying," but not just to escape Massuh's whip; freedom for male protagonist Jesse (Miles Griffith) -- the haughty, former "pa-rince" who in the past "could not count the slaves" he owned -- lies in recognizing the truism "no man should own a man," and in finding soul within himself. For the first half of the tale, he resists the comfort and insight offered by fellow captive Leona (Cassandra Wilson), whom he calls a "common woman." But later he embraces her song, realizing that "soul is the giving without want; the sharing of some soothing sweetness through this bitter life."
In the program notes, Crouch stresses that American slavery should be seen as "a metaphor for every question of unfairness and every question of servitude." He legitimately extends this argument to "issues of labor, of gender, of the exploitation of children, and, finally, of human rights within this society." Marsalis proffered this concept by pointing out the pervasiveness of gender and class inequity even among individuals in the same oppressive situation. But hokey lyrics such as "You've got to sing with soul so Indians will dance" and "Be sad but sing a happy song to call the Indians out" failed in an attempt to illustrate the kinship between the slaves and the similarly persecuted Native Americans.
For the most part, Marsalis' story is convincing. Some lines are truly inspired. Hendricks' piggish slave-buyer anthem "Soul for Sale" drops attitude with a substantial impact: "I like my Negroes real, simple but plentiful of feeling." And Wilson's "Lady's Lament" resonates with credible longing: "I thirst for romance, one dance, to give me back my body." Yet inexplicable flashes of affected verse -- "In rage piss I on the world" -- undercut the lyrical authenticity.
Even though the LCJO's musicianship shined throughout and Marsalis' composition seamlessly flowed from snappy, old-time swing to lush, futuristic abstraction that would've tweaked the ears of hard-core avant-gardists (for a few moments, anyway), I often found myself reading ahead during the instrumental interludes, which seemed superfluous next to the unfolding drama. "Back to Basics" grew particularly tiresome when almost the entire orchestra traded rounds of bouncing bop. I kept thinking, "So what? Where's Leona?"
Cassandra Wilson shimmered above all else, including the lead trumpeter's flawless solos and Jon "King of Scat" Hendricks' crowd-rousing ba-ba-ba-dee-boo-dee-bops. The way her earthy moan got on top of and deep inside the notes invoked the captives' abiding desire to feel human amid inhuman conditions, to block out the searing sun of the cotton fields with "hearts ... swaying at one tempo."
"I Hold Out My Hand," the crowning romantic duet between Leona and the much younger (and shorter) Jesse, who as a lone vocalist sounded too much like the monotonous Corey Glover, was aurally riveting but visually incongruous -- almost laughable, like Sonny and Cher. Disbelief could not be suspended. Undeterred, the duo's voices soared in unison, as if transcending the metaphoric bondage of Marsalis' epic spectacle to embrace the sweetness of life through intimacy and a simple song.