Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Terence Blanchard Runs the Voodoo Down

by Susan Kepecs

The Terence Blanchard Quintet brought jazz full circle (at least for this first-wave boomer) at the Union Theater last Friday night (Oct. 21). Blanchard rose to prominence in the ‘80s, plying his Crescent City-spiced trumpet with hard bop king Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers two decades after the golden days of that rousing gospel and blues-tinged flavor of bop and its edgier, more modal, post bop sister.  If Blakey and his one-time trumpet man Lee Morgan, along with Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver were hard bop’s honchos, Coltrane, in his Love Supreme period, was the potentate of post bop – but the almighty Miles Davis, who played all kinds of bop and invented half of them, started it when he opened up the terrain of modal scales. Hard bop speaks to my Chicago girl soul, but post bop embodies the most daring spirit of the Big Apple ‘60s, when both of these takes on jazz (which sometimes overlap) were huge. 
That adventuous edginess has been gone for decades. A few years back Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddens quit reviewing, calling jazz an artform of the past. And in 2005, UK jazz writer Stuart Nicholson published a talked-about book titled Is Jazz Dead?  It’s true – jazz had a feeble existence once  it burned itself out on imitations of Miles' original electronic fusion sometime in the ‘70s.  The music’s quasi resurgence at the start of the new millenium -- the Africanization and hip-hopization of bop (think Lionel Loueke, Esperanza Spalding) and the soft approach to bossa nova (Gretchen Parlato, among others) is often pretty good, but except for grizzled old lions like McCoy Tyner and Roy Haynes, keepin' on into their 70s and 80s, real, honest, old-fashioned bop has been hard to come by for a very long time.
And then Blanchard blazes into town, signaling solidarity, exhorting us to “get [Walker’s] ass out!" – shades of the ‘60s! – and leaping into the void with his smokin’ young quintet: Havana-born Fabian Almazan on piano (Ben Ratliff recently called Almazan one of the country’s most interesting rising pianists: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/07/arts/music/four-young-pianists-on-the-rise-in-the-jazz-scene.html?scp=19&sq=ratliff&st=cse); the impressive, accomplished Brice Winston on tenor sax; 19-year old Juilliard student Joshua Crumbly on bass, and, sitting in (with no rehearsal) on drums, Jeremiah Williams.  A Blanchard-penned tune titled “Wandering Wonder” – a miracle of modal expression – started the first set; only Almazan’s brief, semi-disguised montuno hinted at anything other than ‘60s New York. 
Of course, these are versatile musicians; on the heels of “Wandering” came the bluesy, gospel-y “Ashé,” off Blanchard’s Tale of God’s Will album, the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s movie When the Levees Broke – followed by a piece of sheer post bop by Winston, “Time to Spare,” featuring Winston’s sinuous sax and Almazan’s quirky keyboard work. 
The second set opened with a soaring, sexy take on the standard “Autumn Leaves,” and an extended segment from Choices, Blanchard’s 2009 CD on Concord. I carried away from that an image of Blanchard and Winston bent over their horns, playing the same cascading runs seconds apart.
      In the closer, a new, as yet unrecorded piece by Almazan called “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme” (or something like that), the keys were souped up with electronic processing, and Blanchard’s authoritative trumpet looped through a chorus pedal. Throughout the night Blanchard, the consummate jazz educator, had served up commanding solos while leaving wide open spaces for his rising sidemen. Almazan, true to this form, broke loose in his fusion-tinged piece, which possesses a wildness akin to Bitches Brew.  And, saving the best for last, Blanchard ran the voodoo down.  

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