Critics seem to grapple with most of the 44-year-old trumpeter's latter-career creative output, often showing their true colors in how they've interpreted his work all along. Some marveled at last October's release of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's Don't Be Afraid ... The Music of Charles Mingus, while others have sniffed at its supposed formalism --Êand the same could be said for Marsalis' solos, which can be either effortless or overly structured, depending on how you look at him.
But no matter how he is perceived, Marsalis has been able to channel his status as jazz's leading statesman into action, and nowhere is that more apparent than in his outspoken demand for the cultural revitalization of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He may speak in phrases, sometimes predictably so, but his phrases have resonance when he fights for the city's cultural survival. As the co-chair of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission's Cultural Committee, Marsalis co-authored a blueprint for success. "My greatest fear is that nothing will be done with it," Marsalis answers when asked by phone what his greatest hope and fear are of the report. "We didn't come up with ways to implement the plan. The city has to implement it. But both the mayor and the Lieutenant Governor (mayoral candidate Mitch Landrieu) said they enjoyed reading the plan."
Marsalis' relationship with Landrieu has also helped create something that can be implemented, and music lovers will see the fruits of those labors when Marsalis brings the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, along with Ghanan drumming legend Yacub Addy and Odadaa! for the premiere of their collaborative piece, "Congo Square." Naturally the setting will be Armstrong Park's Congo Square, where the musicians will channel the spirit of those 18th and 19th century days when slaves were allowed to gather and celebrate their culture, however briefly.
The project had been discussed over a period of about two years, says Marsalis, but kicked into high gear about three months ago. "It's a return to a certain portion of the roots of our city," says Marsalis, who also serves as as chair of Landrieu's National Advisory Board for Culture, Recreation and Tourism. "It's an important thing that took place in Congo Square. Any style of music that features the combination of bass and drum is the foundation of American music. They owe a debt to Congo Square. "Yacub and I had met many years ago, and we started talk about many things -- New Orleans, Congo Square, the African-American experience, jazz, and Congo Square was the only place they were allowed to play. It defined the meaning of groove. We wanted to do a piece to address and commemorate that occurrence."
And, considering the fact that there is no physical recording of the music from that period, Marsalis didn't try to recreate it in the literal sense, "but just to say that to enjoy this music and come together now and celebrate that we have these things in common."
Considering the disparate nature of the two group's musical styles, Marsalis knew they'd have to find a common ground -- the essential component of any musical collaboration. But this one, at first glance no big deal to the untrained musical ear, was a big one. "The bell patterns are one beat and a half different. That's a ways away from where we feel it and where we hear it," he says. "It's natural to us to hear it with the low beat being the downbeat. Now when I tell you it's a beat and a half away. ... It's all on the backside of the beat from when they play it. We started playing on the other side of the beat, first, and we make the adjustments that we have to make with."
Which is not to say that everything's been ironed out. Not with Marsalis, who didn't earn nine Grammys (performing in both classical and jazz) by composing something half-baked. "I wouldn't say it's shaped and ready to go," Marsalis says, half chuckling. "I will write until the last minute. It's like I tell people: 'You want it to be good or on time?' I'll be tweaking it until the day I die."