3 out of 5 stars
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 July 2012 07.41 EDT
Wynton Marsalis is famously resistant to notions of jazz-fusion. He has denounced attempts to dilute jazz by using funk or rock rhythms, always loudly asserting the primacy of swing in the jazz tradition. African rhythms, however, are rather more problematic for him. These rhythms do not swing in the traditional sense: they do not use swung quavers. Musicologically, they’re as far from his notion of jazz as, say, heavy metal. Yet they are undeniably part of jazz’s DNA.
The Congo Square project, which kicks off a mammoth series of Lincoln Center events at the Barbican, sees Marsalis confront this paradox. It’s a collaboration between a jazz ensemble and an African drum troupe, named after the only square in New Orleans where slaves were allowed freely to play their own instruments. Marsalis acknowledges it has been one of his most difficult musical challenges, taking him far out of his comfort zone.
The nine members of Yacub Addy’s Ghanaian outfit Odadaa! (all colourful dashikis and hausa hats) share the stage with Marsalis’s 15-piece orchestra (all pale Brooks Bros suits and tan brogues). For much of the concert, however, they seem oblivious to each other. Each piece starts with the Ghanaians hollering call-and-response chants while bashing out fiendishly complicated rhythms, sometimes in arcane time signatures (7/4, 12/8). Just when you think the jazz musicians are about to join in, the Africans stop and Marsalis’s band start playing an unrelated piece of music, reverting to a straight, Nelson Riddle-style 4/4 swing rhythm. If it’s supposed to be a musical conversation, it’s one in which neither side seem to be listening.
Occasionally, as the concert progresses, the two sides of the stage converge. Just before the interval, two members of Odadaa! superimpose two complex cowbell patterns upon each other – one in 6/8, the other in 4/4 – and the jazz band starts riffing over this polyrhythm. Later there are hints at the spacier afro-jazz explorations of Pharoah Sanders or Randy Weston. But usually the attempts at unity see the jazz band honking in a fairly rudimentary manner over the African rhythms: the Lincoln Center’s fine soloists rarely let rip in the way they often do over swing rhythms.
As an investigation of jazz’s African roots, it’s a failure, albeit a fascinating and entertaining one. It also reminds us that, were our ancestors as fusion-phobic as Marsalis, jazz would never have existed in the first place.