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Jazz trumpeter and composer Hannibal (who has also been known as Hannibal Marvin Peterson) could have simply been content with his quarter-century career as a successful bop performer. But in recent years an idea has obsessed him, the same idea that has inspired other African-American jazz composers like Duke Ellington, Randy Weston, Bob Reid, and John Carter. Hannibal's goal has been to create a large-scale opus, somewhere between oratorio and opera, using jazz and more than jazz, to tell the epic history of his people's passage through slavery. The recording of this audaciously ambitious project, African Portraits (Teldec), has just been released, and it marks a monumental advance for Hannibal's musical career, and an overwhelming gift for lovers of all forms of African-American music.

Recorded in concert last year at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Hannibal fronted -- ready for this? -- a jazz quartet, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, the Morgan State University Choir, the Kennedy-King College Community Chorus, the Doris Ward Workshop Chorale, four operatic singers, various traditional African musicians, and a handful of African-American vocalists involved with blues and gospel. This seemingly endless supporting cast must have presented numerous challenges to the team of sound engineers, not to mention the challenges the performers and audience faced in formulating a single coherent musical image out of so many seemingly incompatible strains. That this recording so movingly conveys Hannibal's vision is a credit to all parties involved.

African Portrait's dramatic structure is cyclical; it's bookended by traditional West African sacred songs accompanied by "Papa" Bunka Susso's kora (African lute). A dozen musical episodes unfold within this frame, succinctly dramatizing the entrance of European slave traders into Africa, the Middle Passage, slave auctions, hard times after the Emancipation, and the birth of the blues and jazz, and how those styles resonate with a people's African heritage.

This is a lot of narrative material to highlight in a little more than 50 minutes. Hannibal has chosen to present his history through poetically sung text, each lyric offering a quick overview of the emotional and spiritual issues at stake in slavery and liberation. Massive instrumental and vocal resources are deployed sparingly, selectively. Think of a musical variety show. First an African singer enters, a solo act. He leaves the stage as opera singers and a chorus come on, backed by full orchestra. They perform their tale of slave-trader sadism and exit as a boy soprano, Brian Smith, appears to sing his unforgettable plea to his mother sold into slavery.

There's nothing that sounds like jazz until more than midway into this recording, but when Hannibal and his quartet (with pianist Ron Burton, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Cecil Brooks III) enter, there's no stopping them. Hannibal plays furiously well, tossing molten little bop phrases in all directions, sounding like the supreme trumpeter we had always hoped Freddie Hubbard would become. The quartet perform their memory of New York during the heyday of bop in the 1950s, then are blended ever so carefully with the symphony orchestra players and choruses for a hopeful anthem, "You Can Find a Way."

In this triumphal crossing of Hannibal from conventional jazz to symphonic oratorio, there is no doubt the artist has found his path. And that path leads to Boston. Discussions are underway for this piece to be performed here. Even in this city, where hybrid experiments with jazz and classical music have a long history, African Portraits will raise a few eyebrows. Few fusions so deserve the accolade of "masterpiece."

-- Norman Weinstein

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