BY BENSON IDONIJE
TERENCE Blanchard is not one of those ostentatious hornmen who would design their sessions for the sole aim of attracting attention from jazz devotees. He is not the type that would play his trumpet, choosing specific notes that would appeal to, and excite screaming audiences. Blanchard is a genuine artist who believes in expressing himself naturally.
For him, jazz is a serious matter, as serious as your life. And that is exactly why his recent recording has captured the implications of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster whose catastrophic effects are still being felt in America till today, for compositional idea and performance.
What immediately strikes one upon listening to a few bars of Blanchard’s improvisational progression is his thorough grounding – evidence that he has listened extensively to the masters of the instrument.
Truly evident in those flowing lines of soaring melodies and intellectually crafted compositions is great talent — regardless of the fact that the influences of Clifford Brown and Miles Davies are copiously in attendance. Without doubt, these are some of the qualities he has invested in his recent recorded release, which views Katrina as “a tale of God’s will”; a natural, but unfortunate disaster.
With recording on the BlueNote stable, Blanchard is heading a formidable sextet of Brice Winton, soprano and tenor saxophones; Aaron Parks, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kendrick Scott, piano; Zach Hermon, percussion. He is however at his best on trumpet.
The album, Tale of God’s Will contains such well crafted compositions as Ghost of Congo Square Square; Levees; Wading Through, Ashe; In time of need; Ghost of Betsy; The water; Mantra Intro; Mantra; Over There; Ghost of 1927; Funeral dirge; Dear mom.
BLANCHARD is deeply touched apparently because he is a New Orleans native; and has captured the many dimensions of Katrina with solos, riffs and several other dynamics. A great composer and arranger with imagination, the various titles have been interpreted with moods and settings that are fittingly appropriate.
Listening to the entire ensemble generally, and in particular, Blanchard’s solo design, it is as if he was watching Katrina happen, and he was playing his music as the disaster took place. The high level to which he has taken this documentary in terms of commitment and creativity all show that he is proud of the city and its heritage.
Terence Blanchard used to show his friends the most beautiful architecture, the best representations of who New Orleans people were. He was, however, taken up by a friend, after the disaster, who said he did not realise that there were poor people in the city because Blanchard had never shown him the Katrina places.
This requiem makes up for whatever inadequacies. It describes New Orleans with the vividness of first hand knowledge and depicts all the highs and lows – with solos and elevated arrangements that are executed with the deepest of emotions.
Blanchard wrote the score for Spike Lees’ acclaimed 2006 documentary, When the Levees Broke, in which Blanchard appears with his mother and grandmother as they return to their flooded home. There is no connection with that piece of music and A Tale of God’s Will, but this is to show Blanchard’s concern for his fatherland and the many contributions he has made to Katrina’s memory with music.
A Tale of God’s Will, even though executed by a sextet — which in fact is a small group — is full of arrangements which portray it as a big band. And, rather than interpret this documentary with the typical New Orleans roots and heritage mix — which is likely to enhance it in terms of easy recognition and its relation to the seat of early jazz that the city is, it takes the form of an orchestrated, concert requiem.
The orchestration may sound like an all-purpose film score, all sweeping strings and long distance views, one stage removed from the human tragedy and ineptitude in the city it is meant to be commemorating. But the real feeling, the actual New Orleans heritage in relation to Katrina can be well appreciated by jazz devotees, not everybody.
The music will be well taken in by jazz musicians and ardent followers of jazz, who appreciate the essence of the music in terms of melodic exploration and inventiveness; the creativity engendered by a solo design; the beauty of tonal conception; compositional framework and phraseology.
Blanchard’s approach is in line with the best of jazz, and there is no doubt that he is one of the foremost jazz musicians on the scene today. The reference to New Orleans, its roots and heritage would be beautifully captured by the likes of Louis Armstrong who has since gone to meet his ancestors. His New Orleans Stars would have done justice to a Katrina memorial because he was the key player of New Orleans jazz.
Born in New Orleans in 1901, Armstrong died in 1971. Modernists may have taken over with the advent of ‘bop’ in the ’40s, but Louis Armstrong was the most important and influential musician in jazz history. Although he is often thought of by the general public as a lovable, clowning personality, a gravel-voiced singer who played simple but dramatic trumpet in a New Orleans styled Dixieland setting, Armstrong was much, much, more. A great ambassador of the whole of the United States of America, Armstrong helped to put New Orleans on the map. However, this article is not about Louis Armstrong. The reference to him is only an aside. The spotlight is dropping on the trumpeter, Terence Blanchard.
Listening to the ensemble of Blanchard and its interpretation of Katrina as a Tale of God’s Will, at times it overwhelms in its grandeur, smothering the sextet. And at others, it retreats into a seemingly caressing sound. All these dynamics are capturing the nature of the disaster itself and its aftermath.
The various stories which appear, as titles composed and arranged should be appreciated from the musician’s jazz points. The listener must cast his mind back to New Orleans and visualise Katrina as it wreaked all the havoc.
Compositions such as Wading through and Water really drive the point home with arrangements that depict movements and strong winds while The Ghost of Betsy mellows the music down to a brooding situation, a moment of extreme sorrow. In time of need paints the picture of extreme poverty and hopelessness with sounds that are intense in places suddenly becoming subdued.
However, whatever interpretation you give it; from whatever perspective you visualise it in the process of listening, Blanchard’s superlative playing is evident.
The undeniable fact remains that his trumpet is strong and authoritative. Always vocal, but never vociferous, his trumpet speaks as the orchestra rarely does, offering a commentary to tragedy with a soaring and painful beauty.
His open trumpet flying over a walking Ghost of Betsy is quite simply supreme, his burnished tune on Levees subdued and plaintive. Along side him, the sextet is necessarily in shadow although never less than opposite as Derrick Hodges high register electric bass is always ear catching.
Although he originally rose to prominence in the shadow of Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard was one of the first young lions to develop his own sound, mixing in elements of Freddie Hubbard whose sound identity encapsulates those of Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and Fats Navaro. He studied piano from the age of five and took up the trumpet in 1976. Blanchard was with Lionel Hampton in the 80s, replacing Wynton Marsalis in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers band during 1982–1986.
His stint with Art Blakey prepared him for the challenges of rhythm and composition. And the fact that he was a prolific pianist opened his horizon to arranging and the dynamics of flowing lines and progressions. A Tale of God’s Will: A requiem for Katrina is one of his many serious and intellectually crafted compositions.