The artistic history of the twentieth century is dominated by the transformation of low art (creative enterprises that deliberately or unintentionally break the rules of the established order) into high art (types of expression that are regarded by members of the intelligentsia and other ministers of culture as timeless, spiritually enriching and beautiful in the largest possible sense). This process follows a similar pattern no matter the medium. Take so-called fine art as an example: In 1914, when aesthetic anarchist Marcel Duchamp first exhibited a urinal and other "ready-mades" in galleries under the theory that they constituted art because he said they did, he was roundly denounced by the tastemakers of the day--but by the time he first showed his supreme accomplishment, 1923's "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," critics had decided that he was a conceptual genius and the de facto godfather of the dadaist movement. Likewise painter Roy Lichtenstein, whose wall-sized renditions of banal comic-strip panels were initially dismissed as crass pandering to the masses but who is now regarded as a brilliant graphics manipulator whose bold and innovative pieces opened the door for the pop artists who trailed after him.
This sort of revisionism is unquestionably healthy; without it, the various visual and aural forms would become unbearably stagnant. However, the knowledge that the right kind of project can trigger artistic re-evaluation can lead to unforeseen, and unfortunate, circumstances. Artists with pretensions to immortality who operate in arenas not yet recognized by society's grand pooh-bahs may set out to craft a work so groundbreaking that it will earn for their field the respect it deserves. But when this goal suffuses the venture, the effort that results often suffers from a self-consciousness that undermines its basic appeal. In other words, when artists strive so calculatedly for greatness, their creations often become much easier to respect than to enjoy.
Such is the case with Blood on the Fields, a just-released three-CD set by Wynton Marsalis & the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that captures in its entirety an opus that debuted in April 1994. Marsalis, who's 36, is inarguably the most ambitious jazz musician of his generation. Since his appearance on the scene in 1979 as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, he's been an outspoken advocate of jazz as art, and in the more than thirty albums he's made since then, he's attempted to use his trumpet and his lip to underline this point. His classical recordings, including 1988's Baroque Music for Trumpets and 1996's In Gabriel's Garden, were undoubtedly done from the heart, but they also indicated a desire on his part to be taken seriously by those academics who continue to feel that jazz is a second-tier style. So does Blood, which is a massive undertaking--a more-than-three-hour-long extravaganza in which Marsalis attempts to touch upon blues, gospel and the infinite variety of jazz while telling a tale meant to capture the essence of slavery, the longest-running crime in our nation's lifetime. The theme is important: It's the kind of subject matter that is impossible for even the snootiest observers to dismiss.
Clearly, Marsalis set out to stage a sonic saga so vast, so sprawling and so relentlessly serious that it absolutely had to be judged by the same standards that are ordinarily applied to operas and symphonies--and he succeeded. Blood on the Fields was presented with the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for music--the first time a non-classical work was so honored. Moreover, Pulitzer judges used the goliath tract as justification for rewriting the commendation's criteria: Whereas it had previously been restricted to "distinguished musical compositions by an American in any of the larger forms, including chamber, orchestra, opera, song, dance or other forms of musical theater," it will now be awarded "for distinguished musical composition of significant dimension."
This is certainly an enormous and long-needed accomplishment for which Marsalis should be quite proud. But there's one little rub: the music itself. It is supremely well-played, by an instrumental crew headed by Marsalis and saxophonists James Carter, Victor Goines and Robert Stewart, and well-sung, by gifted vocalists Jon Hendricks, Miles Griffith and Cassandra Wilson. Nonetheless, the familiar yarn is not presented in an especially intriguing or novel manner, and the music that underpins it does not push jazz forward in any substantial way. Instead, Marsalis, whose championing of tradition over invention has been assailed by many of his peers, presents a pastiche that pays homage to past virtuosos without establishing himself as one.
Blood's opening cut, "Calling the Indians Out," sets the stage for what follows. Marsalis introduces it with a trumpet flourish that instantly calls to mind Johnny Hodges before being joined by a large, brass-heavy band that moves in and out of musical themes that suggest Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige and the work of Ellington apostles like George Russell. These are, without question, admirable influences, and Marsalis has certainly studied them closely: His arrangements, like theirs, have a sweep, size and weight that cannot be ignored. But--and this is a key point--he uses only musical elements that have been common in jazz for decades. As good as the music sounds, it could have been made in the mid-Sixties--and most of its ingredients are far older. That's not to say that they're no longer worthy. But this classicism serves as a limitation that Marsalis never attempts to transcend. Apparently, he believes that all the major developments in jazz have already taken place; thus, his mission is not to move in new directions but to prove how nice it is to revisit the same old places.
Following the conclusion of "Indians," Marsalis sets out to tell the story of two slaves, an African prince named Jesse (Griffith) and a commoner called Leona (Wilson). At first, Jesse is self-pitying, viewing his horrible situation only in terms of the misery it causes him personally, but with the help of a wise man named Juba (Hendricks), he comes to the realization that no man is free as long as someone else is enslaved. This comprehension is symbolized by Jesse's decision to help the lowly Leona escape with him. As they flee, Juba, to the rhythms of a New Orleans parade march, informs us in "Freedom Is in the Trying" that "Freedom is no simple thing but all you need to know/Freedom's in the trying and walk on through the door."
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This sketchy narrative demands compelling voices to give it flesh, and the three primary singers furnish them. Wilson, who specializes in mood and nuance, excels in "Move Over," a somber lament set in a slave ship, and "My Soul Fell Down," a ditty that calls for her to moon over her absent love. Griffith is a less distinctive presence, but his dry, occasionally scratchy tenor still manages to impress; it's heard to good effect on "You Don't Hear No Drums," during which he manages to deliver lines such as "Hear me once more common girl/In rage piss I on the world" without gagging. Hendricks, meanwhile, is a wonder who swings convincingly on the punchy "Soul for Sale," in which he portrays a slave trader, and the merry "Juba and a O'Brown Squaw," which is decorated with horn blats and the steady huffing of Wycliffe Gordon's tuba. Because Marsalis sees Juba as someone who acts the fool even as he serves as the repository of all Truth, Hendricks frequently finds himself riding atop the trumpeter's most accessible, least affected numbers, and he takes advantage of this stroke of luck.
As for the instrumentals and backing tracks, they are generally marked by notable skill and predictable execution. "Forty Lashes" is meant to evoke a whipping, but with the exception of drummer Herlin Riley, Marsalis's cast is unable to fully let go of their inhibitions; their cautiousness makes the beating seem far more polite than it should. Similarly, "What a Fool I've Been," which follows "Forty Lashes," is too creamy to make much of an impact, "I Hold Out My Hand" builds to a routine climax, and "The Sun Is Gonna Shine," a scatting showcase for Griffith, would not be out of place on an Al Jarreau platter.
Even the weakest of these offerings are not without their virtues: There are no outright throwaways here, and the wizardry of the performers provides numerous moments to treasure. But the more one listens to Marsalis's attempted masterwork, the more the package as a whole seems to have been made for Lincoln Center benefactors and the judges on the Pulitzer committee rather than for the average jazz fan. Marsalis is so obsessed with the Importance of the recording that he forgets that much of what makes jazz truly inspirational is its spontaneity, its looseness, its capacity for surprise. By comparison, these three CDs feel embalmed. Blood on the Fields may qualify as high art, but it doesn't have much blood in it.