Review: Wynton Marsalis/Congo Square




John Adcock reports on a show from Wynton Marsalis and Yacub Addy that highlights the African component in 19th century New Orleans music, juxtaposing it with American jazz and big band music

Yacub Addy, Wynton MarsalisWynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra opened their 2012 residency at London's Barbican Centre yesterday evening with a superb performance that celebrated the very birth of jazz in company with Ghanian drummer Yacub Addy and the band Odadaa!

Congo Square was the public space in New Orleans where African slaves gathered on Sunday afternoons to dance and play, and was the only place in the USA where they could gather freely and celebrate their own music and culture. Inspired by this activity between the mid-1700s and the late 1800s, Marsalis and Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy's two-hour suite Congo Square celebrates the joy of that music and marks its influence on the jazz that followed.

A feast for the eye as much as the ear, the concert presented a neat visual history of jazz development as well, juxtaposing the brilliant, free-flowing coloured robes of the African ensemble Odadaa! with the suited and booted JLCO in their big band lineup. It was a snapshot of how the music was shaped by one culture meeting another and the music too delivered this message powerfully.

Integrating elements of gospel (which showed Marsalis as an accomplished vocalist in the opening minutes of the concert) with traditional African drumming, storytelling through song and a range of big band swing arrangements that offered shades of the Ellington and Basie big bands, Congo Square felt occasionally a little disjointed as a concept to sustain over 120 minutes, but when it worked, it worked supremely well.

If the first half was rousing in its scope and breadth of sound, the second half of the concert lifted the spirits to new heights.  An impressive 15-minute sequence of synchronised drumming from Yacub Addy and Odadaa! became hypnotic with its pulse and energy; a beautiful ballad like something Billie Holiday would croon soothed and seduced, leading the audience towards the finale.

A thunderous piece called War fully integrated the sound of big band jazz with furious African drumming, then the mood was tempered with Peace before everyone involved in the evening's performance slowly walked off stage, playing as they went, carrying the fading sounds of Congo Square with them, and bringing the capacity audience to its feet with enthusiastic applause.

With future concerts in July featuring an Abyssinian Mass, an Afro-Cuban Fiesta and the UK première performance of his Swing Symphony (Symphony No 3), Marsalis can't be accused of a narrow focus in his range of projects for this current residency. Congo Square was an ideal opener, celebrating the birthplace of jazz in the 20th century, and delivering some magnificent sounds and sights along the way.


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