The Terence Blanchard Group: The Right Choice
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in March 1962, multi-award-winning jazz trumpeter, arranger and composer Terence Blanchard this month addresses the choices we all make in life - both as a society and on a personal level - through the release of his latest album, appropriately titled ‘Choices’.
Indeed, with more than 29 albums to his credit, Terence has unquestionably established himself as one of the most influential jazz players and movie-score masters of his generation - having to date won four Grammy Awards as a musician, while boasting over 50 scores to his name as a film composer.
With his illustrious career having begun back in 1980 (when he first came to prominence on the jazz scene as a member of the legendary Lionel Hampton Orchestra, before two years later going on to play with the equally-prestigious Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers) an articulate Mr. Blanchard hooks up with Pete Lewis to discuss his aforementioned latest CD. Which impressively boasts vocal input from writer/speaker/educator/activist Dr. Cornel West plus critically-acclaimed contemporary soul singer/writer Bilal.
“I first decided to call this album ‘Choices’ based on a couple of conversations I’d had with Herbie Hancock about how there are no bad choices in the world of art”, begins Terence in warm, unhurried tones from his home in New Orleans’ famed Garden District: “And then from there, just through a series of mental conversations with myself, I got to thinking about the choices we citizens of New Orleans had made in electing officials that allowed our levees to breach. So, while my last album (2007’s Grammy-wining ‘A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)’) was dealing with aftermath and chronicling the destructive effects of Hurricane Katrina, I wanted this latest record to spark a debate about the choices we made then that put us in that predicament, and the positive choices we’re making today that are gonna help make New Orleans a better place.”
Indeed, ‘Choices’ was appropriately recorded in Blanchard’s hometown - at the Patrick F. Taylor Library, inside the city’s Ogden Museum Of Southern Art. Chosen by Terence both for its outstanding acoustics as well as its historical importance to the city, interestingly the library itself is a survivor of both hurricanes and decades of neglect.
“Well yeah, first and foremost we did definitely want to make this record in New Orleans”, explains Terence: “And we actually ended up choosing the Library after my wife had been to an event there. You know, because she’d been blown away by both the look of it and its acoustics, she suggested I take a look… Which I did, and immediately agreed that it would be a great place to record.”
“Plus I also felt The Ogden Museum in itself represents one of the many positive comeback stories that are happening in New Orleans right now”, he continues: “You know, its survival to me symbolises the dedication and the love affair that the citizens have with this place. And I also look upon it as being a very important success story, period, in the world of art. In that it’s an old-established library that has one of the largest collections of Southern art in the country, if not the WORLD”
Accompanying Blanchard on ‘Choices’ meanwhile are his longstanding band members Fabian Almazan on piano; Derrick Hodge on bass; Kendrick Scott on drums; along with newcomer Walter Smith 111 on saxophone. All of whom made significant contributions to the compositions on the album. While, as stated above, guest artists (in addition to acclaimed guitarist and Blanchard protege Lionel Louke) include Dr. Cornel West (one of the foremost sociological and socio-political scholars in America today and renowned for seminal texts like 1993’s ‘Race Matters’) plus vocally-flexible soul-man Bilal Oliver.
“Well, because - when I initially started to think about how to best create the debate about topics - I thought spoken-word could really be dramatic and lend a great deal to the atmosphere of the discussion. And Dr. West was the first person that I thought of”, relates Terence: “You know, his eloquence and his ability to bring continuity to a number of different topics is legendary. So to me he was the perfect person to put all of those ideas that we have about choice into an arguable context for everybody to hear.”
“Then Bilal - though best recognised as an R&B/soul singer - has always ultimately expressed and shown his love for ALL different types of music, including jazz. So, when he and I did a couple of shows together a few years ago, we agreed to work together at some point. And I thought this was the perfect chance to bring him on board. So, in addition to doing over one of his earlier songs called ‘When Will You Call’, we also got him to write lyrics to - and sing - a tune Kendrick had already composed as an instrumental, called ‘Journey’.”
Film-wise, meanwhile, with over 50 scores to his credit, Terence remains the most prolific jazz music to ever compose for movies. And, while current projects range from the score for George Lucas’ upcoming ‘Red Tails’ to Disney’s ‘The Princess And The Frog’, arguably Blanchard’s best-known work has been on the soundtracks to African-American director Spike Lee’s movies - ranging from playing on ‘Do The Right Thing’ and ‘Mo’ Better Blues’; to composing the scores for the likes of ‘Jungle Fever, ‘Malcolm X’, ‘Clockers’ - plus Spike’s 2006 four-hour Hurricane Katrina documentary ‘When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts’. Which also found Blanchard appearing in front of the camera with his mother, to share their emotional journey back to find her New Orleans home completely destroyed.
“Oh yeah, I always go the extra mile for Spike. Because film-wise he’s the one that first opened the DOOR for me”, confirms Terence: “I mean, I was just a session musician on his earlier stuff, But then he heard me playing the piano, liked what I did, asked if he could use it… We recorded it - and the rest, as they say, is HISTORY! And, while the biggest highlight for me I guess was when I got the chance to score ‘Malcolm X’ - because that was such a big film in my career - probably one of the HARDEST projects was ‘When The Levees Broke’. Because I was actually living the reality of what I was seeing on-screen EVERY DAY! But then it’s also one of the projects I’m most PROUD of. You know, I was very proud of the fact that Spike took the challenge on himself to tell the story - because it was something he didn’t HAVE to do… And I thought he did an amazing job!”
The Terence Blanchard Group album ‘Choices’ is out now through Concord Jazz/Decca Records
Words PETE LEWIS