World gets smaller as music gets bigger

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado
Wynton Marsalis conducting the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Ghanaian percussion ensemble Odadaa! at the Benedict Music Tent Tuesday night. (Lynn Goldsmith/Aspen Music Festival and School and Jazz Aspen Snowmass)

ASPEN ” For the better part of the last two decades, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and accelerating technology evaporated the more ephemeral barriers between nations and cultures, an ever-present chaos has gripped the world. If any­one can make sense and structure of this new world disorder and cast it with a glimpse of hope, it’s going to be the musicians.

That’s how it has seemed in Aspen over the last week-plus. Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen Writers’ Foundation all reached beyond their own customary boundaries to stage events that represented the meetings of different cul­tures. In all of these performances, the music benefited, becoming reinvigorated as classic rock met South American styles, as Ameri­can jazz embraced Latin and African influ­ences. And in the best of these moments, the exchange went beyond the musical, as dia­logues opened up and possibilities for under­standing were created. Jazz Aspen’s June Festival opened last Thursday with Herbie Hancock. The Ameri­can pianist has stood up for diversity throughout his 40-year career, spanning straight-ahead jazz and electronic funk. The latest concert was designed to see if he could pack all that crossing-over into one night. Hancock’s guests for the night came from South America, West Africa and across the U.S.; the sounds came from blues, pop and jazz. And while specific sounds were empha­sized ” the blues by American singer Keb’ Mo’, African beats by Benin guitarist Lionel Loueke, Brazilian beats by percussionist Cyro Baptista ” the overall emphasis was on using spectacular musicianship to blend the tones. This was fusion at its best.

The following night’s opening act was NOMO ” a Midwestern band playing a take on instrumental Afrobeat music.

Saturday night’s set by British classic rocker Steve Winwood featured a pre­dictable set- list heavy on radio staples: “Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “The Low Spark of High­Heeled Boys.” Apart from Winwood’s repertoire, and his continuing enthusiasm for playing the hits, the highlight of his show was Jose Neto, a Brazilian-born gui­tarist whose pyrotechnic solos floored the audience as much as the introduction to, say, “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Neto has also led Winwood into a recent exploration of South American rhythms, a journey more evident on Winwood’s last album, “About Time,” than on the Jazz Aspen stage, a small disappointment.

Opening for Winwood was singer Angelique Kidjo, whose bandmates come from the Caribbean and West Africa. The power and stage presence Kidjo exhibited can almost certainly be traced to her travels ” from her native Benin to the 14 years she spent in Paris to her current home in New York City ” and the broad influence and experience she has soaked up along the way. On Monday night, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation presented Malian guitarist, singer and storyteller Habib Koite at Belly Up, as part of the Aspen Summer Words conference, a celebration of African culture. Koite was billed for a solo performance, but he, too, couldn’t bridging some gaps. His show included a sharp, critical rap by a Cameroon- born spoken- word artist, and percussion by a duo of students from the Aspen Music School.

Finally, and most spectacular, Jazz Aspen and the Aspen Music Festival teamed up (talk about building bridges) to present Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Yacub Addy’s Ghana­ian percussion ensemble Odaada! in a per­formance of “Congo Square,” co-composed by Marsalis and Addy.

The piece, nearly two hours long, opened with a precise statement of its inten­tions. Marsalis and members of his orches­tra played gospel strains, and sang about “peace in the house, peace in the family.” A few movements later, the two orchestras stood up to face one another, engaging in a call-and-response that emphasized dialogue and engagement.

Those were two of the more literal moments of “Congo Square.” But the heart of the piece came through the music, designed to make connections between New Orleans and West Africa. And the lifeblood of those connections was the drums, as Odaada! weaved its distinctly African beats into the sounds of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which ranged from old- school big- band jazz to a New Orleans’ second- line to mournful bluesy passages. Marsalis has been called ” often as a derogation ” a traditionalist, but here, that tag could be applied in the best way: Marsalis grasps the essence of musical tra­ditions ” here, both New Orleans and Africa ” well enough to combine them and make them speak one another’s language.

And there was Marsalis, conducting, dancing and smiling, as if nothing could make a person happier than seeing the world become a smaller, more joyous place.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is