Wynton Marsalis' Blood on the Fields

After seeing Blood on the Fields, a composition for a large jazz band, composed, arranged, and conducted by jazz great Wynton Marsalis at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC, my impression of jazz has changed completely.

Blood on the Fields is about two slaves, Jesse (vocals by Miles Griffith) and Leona (vocals by Cassandra Wilson), who have ended up as slaves in America. Jesse was formerly a Prince, and Leona is a commoner. At first Jesse, in his princely arrogance, spurns Leona and attempts to escape. But after being caught and punished, he learns some humility. The music and vocals try to capture the essence of American Slavery, what the program describes aptly as "the buzzard pecking at the liver of the Constitution, and its shadow, like a dark virus, infected everything it touched."

Truer words were never spoken, and words alone cannot describe the empathy and emotion that Marsalis' composition invokes, that brings the above story literally to life. In fact, given the theme and the structure of the composition, it could well be considered a rock opera, or a jazz musical, along the lines of Jesus Christ Superstar. The seriousness of the subject is handled adroitly by mixing in quite a bit of swing, resulting in an pop-like feel to many of the pieces. Consider these lyrics:

"What a great day for shopping
 I can feel money dropping
 People, that's what I'm copping
 Soul for Sale

Checking their teeth and hairlines
 Pinching a buck whose skin shines
 Looking for brown concubines
 Soul for Sale."
                 ---Soul for Sale, 
               Blood on the Fields

Contrast it to something like King Herod's Song in Jesus Christ Superstar. Even though there is no real performance here, the music and lyrics together invoke images of a slave marketplace far more vividly than any actual pictoral representation.

But the best aspect of the music in Blood on the Fields lies in the elements of noise used by Marsalis. The trumpets, the trombones, the drums, the saxophones, and the piano playing off of each other brings to mind John Cage's Europera. The trumpets with their caps made noises rivalling those of an analog synthesiser, and Miles Griffith's vocals at times would give any death metal vocalist a run for their money. At times, the thunderous bursts of all the instruments blaring in unision is reminscent of Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance (from Gayaneh). And why shouldn't it? It is clear Marsalis has a great deal of experience with, and borrows heavily from, twentieth century avant-garde composers (Bartok, Stravinsky, and Stockhausen).

A special mention must be made of the piece Calling the Indians Out, which features guest soloist Regina Carter on the violin. This piece not only showcases some brilliant violin playing, but it illustrates how Marsalis wishes to integrate the plight of American Indians with that of the Black Americans. There is a lot of deep social commentary here in that theme.

Overall, Blood on the Fields is a great experience, not just for jazz lovers, but for any music lover. I highly recommend checking the show out if it comes near you.

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org || February 6, 1997