by Michael Goldberg
Monday, September 15, 2003
Terence Blanchard's Got What It Takes
A veteran jazzman helps keep the music vital
Is it possible for a trumpet player/bandleader to avoid comparisons to Miles Davis? Not likely. And in the case of the immensely talented Terence Blanchard he begged for the comparison by taking on the Johnny Mercer/Jimmy Van Heusen standard, "I Thought About You," that Miles Davis played for years.
During the second set of his opening-night appearance at the Oakland, Calif. jazz club Yoshi's, Blanchard, 41, began "I Thought About You" with a potent, extended solo that showed both his debt to Davis and the distinctive qualities that he's brought to his own playing. "It took years for me to get the courage to play it," Blanchard told the audience.
"I Thought About You" is a romantic ballad that dates from the late '30s. First for Davis, and now for Blanchard, it's a showcase for delivering bittersweet emotions with a horn. During the live recordings that I have of Davis playing the song, he creates a moody, melancholy feeling with his phrasing. And while Blanchard, in his own way, matched the vulnerability of Davis (think of his Sketches of Spain solos), there is a "girth" to Blanchard's playing, a solidness that is quite different from that of Davis. Blanchard's solos, during "I Thought About You" and the other songs that filled his two sets, feel grounded. Yes, he can trip the light fantastic with flurries of notes, and can make his trumpet cry and moan, but, well, his playing feels trustworthy and dependable, like a friend you know will be there when times are tough.
What I'm trying to say here is that when compared to Davis, Blanchard does very well. He's serious player who is also a skilled bandleader, session man, composer and educator.
Blanchard, who grew up in New Orleans, lacks the high drama of Miles Davis, whose moodiness was legend. He came out onto the stage with his band and he stayed there, either playing or keeping his band on track.
Blanchard is a musician you can count on. He's not going to walk off the stage for half the set and let his band carry things (something I've seen more than one jazz "legend" do). I like his new album, Bounce (Blue Note) a lot, and loved the two sets I caught at Yoshi's.
Blanchard is a somewhat stocky man who dresses casually an orange, black and light blue striped dress shirt, black pants and tan boots. He plays a custom trumpet and gets a rich, luminous tone from it.
He first studied piano as a child, then took up the trumpet in 1976, when he was 14. Four years later, he joined Lionel Hampton's band and was with the vibraphonist/ bandleader for two years before taking Wynton Marsalis' chair in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. With fellow Jazz Messenger and saxophonist Donald Harrison he formed the Terence Blanchard-Donald Harrison Quintet in 1986, and they recorded five albums together. Since beginning his solo recording career in 1992, Blanchard has recorded 10 albums. He is also a successful film composer, who began working with Spike Lee in the late '80s. Films he worked on include "Mo' Better Blues," "Malcolm X," and "Clockers."
Blanchard and his outstanding band pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Brice Winston, bassist Massimo Bioculti and drummer Rodney Green played two sets at Yoshi's, each being about an hour and 10 minutes in length. And for much of those sets, Blanchard was front and center, delivering a jaw-dropping series of solos when he wasn't playing unison riffs with Winston.
The musicians in Blanchard's band are young. At least three Parks, Loueke and Winston are or were his students at University of Southern California's Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, where he's currently Artistic Director. One of them, Parks, is only 19. These are young, committed jazzheads and, like the equally young members of Greg Osby's current touring band, have chosen to play a music that doesn't have much commercial potential. You don't become a jazz musician for the money. Certainly not in the 2000s.
For the first set, most of the repertoire was drawn from Bounce, and included "Fred Brown," "Nocturna" and "Transform." He opened the second set with Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," also off the album.
Blanchard plays hard bop and post pop. There are times when I hear echoes of Davis' In a Silent Way. He's not an innovator, but rather, makes his music sound fresh, both by bringing his personality to it, and by the intensity he and his band members bring to their performances. Quite a few of the compositions found the band creating a dissonant bed of sound over which Blanchard blew a series of rich, melodic riffs.
Great jazz is about being in the moment, about really listening to what the other players are doing, and responding. It's about making things up on the spot riffs, tones, phrases that resonate, both with the other players and your audience.
As I dug the sounds the sextet was creating, I couldn't help but be impressed by each band member. Every one of the musicians on the stage was clearly a master player. Particular standouts were Parks, who brings a unique, slightly clunky sound to his playing, and Loueke, who is from West Africa, and played thick notes, at times showing the influence of Grant Green. Often Loueke used his guitar for coloration, creating a gentle sound of bells on one song, a kind of muted foghorn on another.
And drummer Green managed to hold down the beat with a minimal style, yet was constantly taking chances, delivering a bar or two on his cymbals, then moving to his tom, back to the cymbals, and so on. He often produced a striking "wood on wood" tone that added tension to the performances. Beyond their skill level, they are all in their element when improvising, and able to deliver the goods not an easy thing.
Blanchard wrote many of the memorable compositions they performed, had put this group together and led them with confidence and authority. And he played between an hour and an hour and a half of striking trumpet lines (during the two sets). Not bad.
Some months ago, after witnessing performances by McCoy Tyner and Cyrus Chestnut, I'd questioned whether jazz was a music still growing and changing, whether jazz was still vital and alive. After seeing recent performances by Greg Osby, Pharoah Sanders and now Terence Blanchard, I feel confident that jazz is very much alive and well. It is heartening to hear a veteran like Blanchard play his ass off, and it's exciting to see and hear young musicians making the music that is jazz their own.