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By Geraldine Wyckoff

AUGUST 4, 1997: 

WHAT: Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis
WHERE: WYES TV Channel 12
WHEN: 11 p.m. Saturday

Local audiences will finally have the opportunity to experience Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, Blood on the Fields. WYES will air an hour of highlights from the three-hour oratorio at 11 p.m. Saturday as part of its "Sessions at West 54th" musical series. With Marsalis leading the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, these selections from Blood on the Fields were taped specifically for public television and are interspersed with interviews with Marsalis. And Columbia has released a much-anticipated three-CD package of the complete Blood on the Fields, which was recorded in New York's Masonic Grand Lodge in January 1995.

Fields is a story about slavery -- a jazz opera of sorts -- about two slaves: Leona, performed by Cassandra Wilson, and Jesse, portrayed by Jon Hendricks. The piece follows them from their meeting in the bowels of a slave ship to their escape to freedom.

The tale is told through Marsalis' lyrics rather than the dialogue of a play, and the scenery is provided by the orchestra instead of painted backdrops and props. Wilson and Hendricks don't act out the parts of Leona and Jesse but give them personalities through their rich and earthy interpretations of the poetic lyrics. The world of Leona and Jesse becomes vivid through the sound of drums, the moan of a trombone and the sparkle of a trumpet. For instance, Herlin Riley's drum hands out "Forty Lashes" to Jesse. And Russell Gunn's trumpet conveys the sound of freedom on "Flying High."

Blood on the Fields is sad but not morbid; it is a human tale that can laugh despite the tremendous burdens and find love amid deep sorrow. (As Marsalis has said, "What it takes to achieve soul is the willingness to address adversity with elegance.") Musically, that means that joyful swinging and toe-tapping have their place alongside the agony of a slow dirge. In fact, the two emotions often find themselves together, as during "Soul For Sale," in which the musical attitude is light-hearted. In it, Hendricks ironically sings, "What a great day for shopping, I can feel money dropping, people that's what I'm copping ... ." Myriad musical and emotional shifts also are experienced within "God Don't Like Ugly," perhaps because it speaks to the truth that humanity and hope survive even within the terrible confines of slavery.

The orchestra and the individual musicians are employed in a number of ways throughout the work. As an introduction to each of the 27 songs that make up the oratorio, members of the band recite a passage to set the stage and mood. Each "scene" has its own personality created in part by the instruments used. At times, the full orchestra takes over and adds power with its sheer size. On the other hand, simple percussion and hand-clapping are enough to convey the desired message on songs like "Chant to Call the Indians Out." A jazz combo often steps out of the larger band, and its compactness gives the music some agility. There are also many fine solos to be heard. Local artists Victor Goines and Wess Anderson often stand in the spotlight.

Marsalis' acclaimed Blood on the Fields gets a partial showing this weekend on television -- but you can get the whole thing on disc.

All elements of jazz -- modern, big band swing, traditional and even avant garde -- swirl within Blood on the Fields, sometimes screaming out their presence, sometimes humming subtly below. Blues, spirituals and work songs bring a sense of the past, while the fine scatting by vocalists Wilson and Hendricks adds a modern flavor.

In order to really experience the entire "play" that is the basis of Blood on the Fields, it's best to listen to the complete, three-hour performance with the discs' enclosed booklet close at hand. But that's not the only way to listen to it, because each of the tunes that make up the work can stand on its own. While Wynton Marsalis' work is a jazz oratorio of epic proportions, it is ultimately a jazz album. And it swings.

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