The always-ambitious Wynton Marsalis has spent much of this decade experimenting with long-form compositions, building on the orchestral innovations of jazz's two past masters of the craft, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. His latest album, "Blood on the Fields" -- the work for which he recently became the first jazz composer to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for music -- is a triumphant jazz symphony that finds transcendence in the brutal story of American slavery through love and community.
Conceived as a series of sung dialogues, "Blood on the Fields" opens with a sad and weary Ellingtonian trumpet fanfare that soon breaks down into a dissonant brass cacophony. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra sets the mood as quickly shifting rhythms evoke adrenaline-drenched confusion, resistance and flight. Transforming the orchestra into a Greek chorus, Marsalis gradually loosens his composer's grip, allowing his players more solo space to advance the story.
The almost three-hour work unfolds on three CDs, tracing the odyssey of Jesse, an African prince, and Leona, a commoner, from the Middle Passage and sale into slavery to their eventual liberation through spiritual resistance and recognized kinship. Marsalis composed, arranged and wrote the libretto for "Blood on the Fields" and brilliantly cast his protagonists with Cassandra Wilson as Leona, Miles Griffith as Jesse and the legendary Jon Hendricks playing multiple roles. Wilson in particular infuses Marsalis' words with a sense of unspeakable longing, as when, in one of the work's poetic epiphanies, she sings to Jesse, "I hold out my hand/To comfort your wounds/And give without want/The sweetness of life."
Much of the work's success depends upon the flexibility of the rhythm section -- the exceptional, church-schooled pianist Eric Reed, bassist Reginald Veal and Crescent City drummer Herlin Riley -- which moves through different moods with complete authority. Marsalis draws upon the entire history of jazz and African-American music in "Blood on the Fields," from field hollers, spirituals, blues and call-and-response to bristling dissonances, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, modal jazz and Ellingtonian brass voicings. Marsalis' radical (and historical) innovation is the freedom with which he combines and juxtaposes musical styles and devices to advance his narrative and provoke emotional responses.
Marsalis' developing musical vision is liberating precisely because it's so expansive and generous. The essence of African-American music, often misperceived in the blues as sadness and depression, is really much more about celebration and, in Stanley Crouch's definition of soul, "the willingness to address adversity with elegance." With "Blood on the Fields," Marsalis has created an epic work infused with soul, one that with its exploration of love and identity is as much about America today as it is about the antebellum South.