Blood On The Fields: Two Decades Later
Blood on the Fields, the historic oratorio on slavery and freedom written by Wynton Marsalis, premiered April 1, 1994 in Alice Tully Hall. In 1997 it became the first jazz composition to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
This coming February 21–23 in Rose Theater, the masterpiece is brought to life by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis, and guest vocalists Gregory Porter, Kenny Washington, and Paula West, plus special guest pianist Eric Reed. Reed performed on the premiere of the commission and on the recording of Blood On The Fields.
Telling the story of two slaves, Jesse and Leona, Blood On The Fields carries us along their difficult journey to freedom. It remains one of Marsalis’ greatest works. JLCO multi-instrumentalist Victor Goines, who made the musical trek through the years with Marsalis, is closely connected to the Marsalis composition; he was on the premiere performance, tour and recording of Blood On The Fields.
“It is an outstanding work,” says Goines. “It is truly educational. That is the one thing I have noticed about Wynton as a composer. Everything he does has research involved in it. It has a specific goal that he tries to reach as a project. It was his attempt to put into music the history of slavery. I think he did a great job at it.”
Blood On The Fields is certainly an ambitious work, a 3-hour long oratorio that reaches back to the roots of American music to provide a staggering portrait of slavery. Many critics praised its musical scope. Here’s what Willard Jenkins wrote in a 1997 article for JazzTimes. “Blood on the Fields is indeed a massive work, one that combines numerous elements of the black musical experience in America, including three or four shades of the blues, chants, field hollers, spiritual forms and liberal doses of New Orleans and Caribbean rhythmic traditions. Unlike a number of earlier extended forms for jazz orchestra, several of Blood On The Fields' movements stand on their own as viable vehicles apart from the whole.”
The original recording featured the vocals of Miles Griffith, Cassandra Wilson, and Jon Hendricks, and the violin of Regina Carter. In the original presentation, “The lyrics make it very clear,” says Goines, “as in ‘Souls For Sale’ and ‘Look And See,’ both sung by Jon Hendricks, that it is the depiction of a slave ship. The swaying back and forth with Cassandra Wilson singing in a very low range, the darkness of her voice along with the darkness of the orchestra. It showed the struggles and pain that must’ve taken place on the slave ships. And of course, as in jazz, the sound of the blues is in the forefront. So you have sorrow and optimism coming together. It is depicted in every aspect of it; the harmonic part of it, the rhythmic sense, the melodic sense, the textural sense of the piece as well as the lyrics, because [Wynton] wrote all of the lyrics to it.
“Wynton writes in a way that causes the band to step up. He makes everyone better,” Goines explains of the JLCO bandleader. “It’s like the Most Valuable Player of a sports team. An MVP is not just one that is good at what they do, but is someone who makes everyone around them better. Wynton does that. He does that not just with the band but with every- one he interacts with, in a humane kind of sense.”
As brilliant a rendering as Blood On The Fields was originally, the upcoming performance will show how the composition has become a living, breathing, work in progress. “The piece is going to be very interesting the second time around. It evolved. Now to not have those initial key voices in it, not just in terms of vocals but in the instrumental part of it as well, it will be very interesting to see how one version compares to the next, in terms of interpretation,” says Goines.
“The band has changed quite a bit personnel-wise since the first recording to today. It is going to be great to hear it at this point now. At the beginning stages we came to it not really knowing what to expect in terms of the sound of the piece. But the second time around, in Wynton’s usual fashion, I’m sure he’s spending time with the original scores, making edits to what he sees necessary. It was a great piece originally, but as with any composer, they always want to make that child a better child... a better grown-up as Blood On The Fields is about 18 years old,” he adds with a smile.
Goines is excited about continuing this musical journey with Marsalis. “I’ve worked with Wynton since 1993, but I’ve known him since we went to kindergarten in New Orleans. It’s been a long, long journey between the two of us. It’s been great to see somebody evolve as he has; musically, personally, as a composer/arranger, and as a leader of an arts organization. All those different things have been outstanding. It’s been great not only to watch him evolve, but to be a part of it as a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.”
Come see the maestro work his magic with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as Marsalis redefines his masterpiece. Experience Blood On The Fields with guest vocalists Gregory Porter, Kenny Washington, and Paula West, plus special guest pianist Eric Reed in the acoustically perfect Rose Theater on February 21–23. Bring your friends. For more information, visit jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
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