Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Challenging Attraction: Terrence Blanchard's Magnetic

The Terence Blanchard Quintet

Terence Blanchard is a musician who never lets the grass grow under his feet. As a skilled trumpeter and composer on one of the most profoundly difficult instruments in jazz, Blanchard continues to play with a consistent sense of abandon balanced by a love for melody. No less can be said about his new album, Magnetic (Blue Note).

Magnetic is a testament to Blanchard’s musical past, a rich education into the history of jazz shaped by the foundation of his birth, New Orleans. It continued with time in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as he explored the world of hard bop alongside Donald Harrison, saxophone, whom he later partnered with in the late 1980s. It was an important time for Blanchard as he found his sound and started composing. He later signed a recording contract with Columbia and became the rival stable mate of Wynton Marsalis.

Blanchard carved out his own career slowly and quietly during the 1980s with a steady diet of performances and hard work. But his big break was hooking up with director Spike Lee in 1990. Blanchard’s trumpet was the featured sound mimed by Denzel Washington in Mo Better Blues. Two years later, Lee hired Blanchard to compose and perform the original score to X, the story of Malcolm X that also starred Washington. Over the years, Blanchard has scored dozens of films. In June of this year, his first opera, Champion, premiered in St. Louis. He’s also been very busy as the artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz located at the University of Southern California. It’s a prestigious gig, one that puts him in the all-important category of jazz educator and ambassador for the music. But Blanchard doesn’t have Marsalis' wider notoriety, perhaps because he hasn’t actively sought out the New York scene as much as Marsalis whose Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra works very hard at taking its leader’s more formal approach to the music around the world.

I’ve been listening to Terence Blanchard for many years, starting in the mid-eighties when I first heard him with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. I found his hard-bop approach and edgier sound progressive and I suspect I identified with his search for meaning displayed by the intensity of his playing. Unlike Marsalis, Blanchard didn’t seem comfortable with being a star musician. It was the work that was important and if that meant fewer record sales and less publicity, then so be it.

But Blanchard has had mainstream success. Some of his best music can be heard in the very soundtracks he’s written, especially in Spike Lee’s emotional documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke (2006). The music for the film carried the emotional weight of the disaster and without it I don’t think the picture would have been as successful. Blanchard’s mournful trumpet graced the images with impeccable honesty without being overly sentimental. (Blanchard appears in the documentary with his mother, a victim of the disaster) The music set the film in its place and led to Blanchard’s most important release in 200,  A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) (Blue Note). It’s a beautiful record that I had the privilege of hearing live in New Orleans as an orchestra joined Blanchard and his quintet, for a one-time sold out concert. Hearing that music in that city just two years after the disaster, which most northerners had already forgotten, was a moving experience.

Blanchard has always tried to balance his grander, orchestral work with his jazz quintet. Magnetic is his first album with his working band in several years, simply because he’s been so busy with other projects. As a result, the recordings are inconsistent. There’s no natural progression in the band’s music. Yet it’s an album of enormous strength and the group grinds out the music often at a breathless pace.

The title track alone has a syncopated start that explodes into an energetic, yet unsatisfying finish. By track 4, “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song” written by Fabian Almazon, the quintet moves into the musical territory once explored by Don Ellis, the West Coast trumpeter who defied the quiet confines of the California sound by going big and mixing up the time signatures to keep the band and his audience on their collective toes. This track goes so far as to electrify Blanchard’s sound resulting in a tune as weird as its title.

If track 4 opens the door to new, slightly psychedelic sounds, track 9, “Another Step,” puts you firmly in the room. Pianist Fabian Almazon, who was clearly given free license to experiment (which is the essence of Magnetic), also wrote it. These tracks are at the core of the record, which is a challenging listen even to someone with an experienced ear. Consequently, I can’t recommend it to newcomers of Terence Blanchard; better to start with Bounce (Blue Note, 2003) or Jazz in Film (Sony, 1999) with Joe Henderson, to get into Blanchard’s unique sound.

That said, Blanchard’s latest release is an important record in the context of his musical career. It gives him, and therefore the listener, the chance to hear from a musician with a great band who challenges himself as much as his audience.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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