We gave it a B
In an achievement of breathtaking scope and ambition, Wynton Marsalis has created a mammoth, virtuoso work unprecedented in jazz. It’s called his resume — the masterstroke of which is his latest long-form composition, Blood on the Fields. Commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where Marsalis leads the country’s most prestigious institutional jazz program, the piece made history this spring as the first composition made up largely of vernacular, improvised music to win the Pulitzer Prize. The honor is long overdue a jazz composer — Duke Ellington came close to winning a special citation in 1965 but lost a controversial final jury vote — and it befits Marsalis, who has brilliantly courted the cultural establishment to amass a progressively impressive list of appointments, commissions, and awards. More and more, Marsalis’ art form seems to be his career rather than his music.
Like a lot of award-winning serious music, Blood on the Fields sounds better on paper than it does on a stereo system. An oratorio about the slave experience with libretto and music by Marsalis, the work explores rich thematic territory. It has moments of striking melodic and harmonic invention (”Work Song,” ”Due North”) and some whirling solo work (particularly from James Carter on baritone saxophone), as well as bravura singing from Jon Hendricks. In the end, however, the piece is a triumph of design and performance over originality and real emotive force — and, at nearly three hours, spanning three discs, it feels indulgent and underedited. It’s all too literally about hope and resilience.
A tip to the Pulitzer people for next year: Now that you’re accepting jazz, keep your ears open for less grandiose pieces by, say, Ornette Coleman or Henry Threadgill. Or Wynton Marsalis. B