Wynton Marsalis is a little like Barry Bonds in the batter’s box. Don’t expect him to bunt. Marsalis swings for the fences and when he hits it out, the whole world knows about it. His collaboration with Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy and the African drumming and vocal troupe Odadaa!, Congo Square, is high art, a daring and dangerously fragile work that was still in development when Marsalis debuted it last year in New Orleans.
The polyrhythms and cadences of the vocalizations of the African musicians and the rhythmic and harmonic voicings of a jazz orchestra do not make for an easy fit, but Marsalis’ musical vision and the focused dedication of the musicians in the two ensembles made it work. Congo Square, which has been performed repeatedly on the current tour, clearly needed repetitions to evolve into its appropriate shape.
In Montreal, Marsalis struck an incantatory note as his solo trumpet passage began the show from somewhere offstage. As Marsalis stepped to the stage playing a solo fanfare, followed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) and Odadaa!, the audience sat in rapt silence, then exploded into applause as Marsalis played high, screaming notes, then began to sing a running theme of Congo Square: “We play our drums! We sing ooh na nay!” As a call and response between one of the African vocalists and Marcus Printup on trumpet developed, Marsalis sang “Peace in the morning,” and the Africans sang a gospel antiphony. “Give me peace of mind,” continued Marsalis, “from Katrina,” and the African singers sang, “Shame! Shame! All over this land!” The moment of transformation locked in, and as the African vocalists took up the powerful call and response, the members of the JLCO shouted along with the responses and clapped hands vigorously to the African beats, pulling their rhythmic mindset into context for their own arrangements.
The overall effect was Ellingtonian, as sections played off one another. Muted trumpets laid over a bed of trombones, flutes heralded an African rhythm played on log drums, clarinets wove an otherworldly transition, and a chorus by Odadaa! contrasted with the JLCO playing a brilliant piece of traditional New Orleans collective improvisation. After more vocal call and response from Odadaa!, a spirited trombone solo over riffing brass sounded like an answering voice, and Odadaa! came back with an eerie, repeated “kwa kwa kwa kwa” refrain, chanting it to the churning polyrhythms. The band mimicked the refrain with muted brass and the JLCO produced a whirlwind of solos over the aural maelstrom—trombone; piano with bass and drums comping; soprano sax with two altos, tenor and baritone phrasing behind. Then Marsalis played a climactic ten choruses, climbing the scale as the JLCO played gorgeous colors behind; a taste of trombone; a four bar tenor phrase.
Drummer Ali Jackson quietly transitioned them to the final movement. A pair of cowbell players carved out an intricate, dancing beat behind a long tenor solo over the full band vamp, the tonality of the reeds, clarinets and soprano sax, giving the section an Arabian melodic feel. The drummers returned, then Jackson played a solo on his trap drums and the band reached the resolution, the cowbells still madly ringing away until they were the final notes of the piece.