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Album Review

The fuzzy black-and-white photo on the cover of the booklet says it all: a white woman, head down, standing beside a noose. In a sense, Irvin Mayfield has come up with an ambitious sequel to Wynton Marsalis' massive oratorio about slavery, "Blood on the Fields," whisking forward to the 1920s, when the Deep South had long since exchanged slavery for an apartheid culture. Unlike Marsalis' opus, the story line here is clear — a young white woman, Mary Anne, falls in love with a black gardener, LeRoi, whom she's known since childhood, whereupon her white fiance Charles summons a lynch mob to take care of LeRoi. The work is divided into nine movements, mostly adhering to a pattern; the narrator inches the story onward at the beginning of each section, and Mayfield's score purportedly comments on the action for the remainder. From the pure, lazy Ellingtonian strains at the outset, Mayfield gradually applies a variation of the cross-pollination philosophy that he practices regularly in los Hombres Calientes, mixing in everything from gospel choir and straight-ahead big band charts to controlled displays of semi-riotous Dixieland jazz and one rather surprising outbreak of Afro-Cuban rhythms. However the disengagement of the music from the narrative has its weaknesses; you keep wanting to get on with the story, and it gets frustrating because the music doesn't advance the plot. The one time Mayfield does tie the story line directly into the music, the result is electrifying — a call-and-response chant between a gospel singer and choir depicting the lynching ("The Lynch Mob (you better run boy run)"), as simple and repetitive as a chain-gang song and as compelling as any. And he finally underscores the last chapter of the narrative with music that develops into a slow, wild, contrapuntal bluesy wail to conclude the piece. Wendell Pierce was a great choice for the narration — he has a rich, deep, charismatic Lou Rawls-like delivery that draws you in — and along the way, Mayfield gets in some of his most impassioned trumpet solos on record. The whole thing was recorded live in the Lawless Chapel of New Orleans' Dillard University, a space that makes the choir sound dry but suits the 17-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra just fine. There are some impressive episodes within this piece, and at the very least, it holds together much better than Marsalis' sprawling opus. ~ Richard S. Ginell, Rovi

Strange Fruit, Dillard University Choir
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