Terence Blanchard- given ‘choices,’ chooses New Orleans time and again

Terence Blanchard- given ‘choices,’ chooses New Orleans time and again
July 20, 2009
Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly

Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard chose to live in New Orleans, bring the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz that he heads to the city of his birth and for the first time record an album here. His decisions continue to impact and shine a light on New Orleans as revealed on his 2007 album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) and furthered on his new, soon-to-be-released CD, simply titled Choices. We also benefit from his residency as Blanchard kicks off his upcoming world-wide tour on July 31, 2009 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Arts where he and his band recorded the disc.

“One of the things that I’m trying to do with this particular CD is not talk about what happened in New Orleans and the negative stuff,” Blanchard explains. “I want to deal with all the positive things that have been goin’ on. My whole thing is to bring up the debate so we can rebuild the city in such a way so it is much stronger and so we can be the beacon of cultural excellence that we’ve been for decades.”

Because of Blanchard’s standing in the jazz world, he holds a unique position to state his case for the city as well as share his political and humanitarian schools of thought. And people listen. On Choices the trumpeter employs his horn to emotionally expresses his hopes, happiness and sadness. The melancholy that permeated A Tale of God’s Will lingers in his tone on the his original composition that is heard in three variations – “D’s Choice,” “Choices” and “Robin’s Choice” — as well as on the trumpeter’s opening solo on pianist Fabian Almazan’s brilliant ballad “Hacia del Aire.”

“I love the city immensely. It’s a heartbreaking thing in my mind,” Blanchard concedes. “One of the things that I always thought has been amazing is that not only has New Orleans always given a lot to the world but that its potential to give more is still limitless.”

To enhance the album’s topic of “Choices,” a subject all of humanity deals with every day, the trumpeter utilizes the spoken word of the renowned Dr. Cornel West, a Princeton University professor of religion and philosophy, activist and the author of the book Race Matters. Short snippets, totaling around seven or eight minutes, were culled from Blanchard’s hour-long interview with West. West speaks on the theme with the soul, rhythm and attitude of a jazz man. His abilities — plus the careful way the words are integrated into the music — make their use successful and appropriate for repeated listenings.

“I tried to be very conscious of that,” says Blanchard, aware of the challenge of tastefully incorporating West’s contributions. “I didn’t want there to be any regular patterns to the way that the spoken word would be heard on the CD. I tried to make sure that it all flowed together,” he explains referring not only to West’s work but also the appearance of noted neo-soul vocalist Bilal. The singer is heard on tunes of a more romantic nature, including dynamic drummer Kendrick Scott’s lilting “Journey” and his own “When You Call.”

At his appearance at the Ogden Museum, the trumpeter brings in Bilal to join his regular band with pianist Almazan, drummer Scott, bassist Derrick Hodge and saxophonist Walter Smith III. Guitarist Lionel Loueke, who displays his huge talent on the album, won’t be on hand for the show and West’s words will be triggered from pre-recorded samplings.

Blanchard generously allows the young members of his band — all of the guys are in their 20s — the opportunity to contribute much of the material on the album. They definitely more than prove themselves as composers as well as instrumentalists. There’s a taste of Almazan’s Cuban homeland in the rhythm and intensity of his masterpiece “Hugs” plus he plays some huge piano. Here, Blanchard takes off with great passion and despite the required speed, his trumpet runs are flawless and tonally gloriously precise and beautiful.

Those who caught Blanchard’s superior set at Jazz Fest will remember the trumpeter dancing off the stage. The upbeat tune the band was playing was bassist Hodge’s “A New World (Created Inside the Walls of Imagination).” The get-your-dance-on rhythm is reminiscent of a Bo Diddley meets a second line beat. (Blanchard suggests guitarist Loueke giving it the Diddley edge.) Its sense of joy has earned the song the honored spot of closing live shows.

“It made me think of Barack Obama,” Blanchard considers, adding that the name of the song came from the title of a drawing by his 10-year-old daughter. “If we allow ourselves, we could create a new world,” he continues. “It has to be a celebratory thin, not an arduous task. It’s an opportunity.”

Blanchard, 47, enjoys working with the young cats in his band because of their wide-eyed nature and exuberance. Once they understand that he’s eager for them to express themselves, he explains, they realize they can play whatever comes to mind. “Anything is possible,” Blanchard exclaims. “The sky’s the limit, really.”

Choices stands as an extension of A Tale of God’s Will rather than a sequel to the acclaimed album. Blanchard purposefully stresses the present state of the New Orleans community. “It’s about how our choices as a community have allowed us to be in this situation,” he explains. “I think it’s important for people to realize that some of this was brought upon by us by not keeping our political leaders’ feet to the fire.”

As a graduate and supporter of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), it is not surprising that Blanchard is dismayed at the recent budget cuts made by the state to the prestigious school.

“One of the things that has always been interesting and curious to me about conservatism is that there is constant talk about family values, about keeping families together. One of the things that has always been big part of that experience is the world of art – not just music, but the visual arts, dance, writing. That has been an important source of comfort for people. In order for people to just not recognize the need for that flies directly in the face of their own platform. We have taken emotion out of political leadership and now we’re making it just about the numbers. It’s amazing and sad.”

Blanchard remembers the legendary pianist Herbie Hancock saying, “New Orleans has always been the heart and soul of the country.” While the trumpeter naturally long shared that sentiment, he felt that having it stated by someone of Hancock’s stature truly validated its truth. Blanchard’s mission is that the continuum not be jeopardized.

The trumpeter is proud that he finally recorded an album in New Orleans and that it took place at the Ogden Museum of Southern Arts that boasts the largest collection of art from the south. “It all goes back to culture,” he says.

The optimism heard in Blanchard’s brilliant trumpet even when tempered with melancholy is inspired by the people of New Orleans.

“The passion of the citizens and all of the people who want to come back – that speaks volumes of the love that people have for the city,” he sincerely declares. “The musicians have been the backbone of keeping people’s spirits high and giving people something to be proud of.”

Blanchard remains among those musicians, who, through their travels, he credits for reminding folks around the world of New Orleans’ unique cultural significance and vitality.

“We all have the right, we all have the potential and responsibility of creating big things, making big statements that have an effect on the world. It is incumbent that we think that way.”

With exhilaration, superb musicians and a sense of purpose, Choices perpetuates thought-provoking musical and philosophical conversations and hope for the future.
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