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Swyer Theatre - The Egg, Albany, NY
September 24, 2005

by - J Hunter

Two years ago Terence Blanchard blew the roof off Skidmore's Bernhard Theatre with a set of exciting, innovative music from Bounce (Blue Note), Blanchard's first disc of original, non-soundtrack-related music in some time. Given the destruction that Hurricane Katrina rained down on the homes of Blanchard and saxman Brice Winston, it would be understandable if the Terence Blanchard Sextet had simply mailed it in to the Swyer Theatre last Saturday night. Instead, they showed how phenomenally far the New Orleans native's music has come, with a set that split between tunes from Bounce and the recently-released, Herbie Hancock-produced Flow (Blue Note).

It was appropriate that the band opened with “Transform”, since almost everything they played was expanded or reinvented. Topping out at nine minutes on Bounce, Blanchard & Co. turned the swirling piece into an intense 35-minute suite, bringing themselves and their audience to an emotional peak with each solo, receding only to make way for the next solo and the next run up that hill. And when they reached the end, they simply segued into “Nocturna” - a very different piece from the same disc - and took us on another journey. By the time the band wound up the tune, the show had been going on for an hour. Two tunes, one hour. And Blanchard's unit was just getting started.

Casual in shirtsleeves and sunglasses, Blanchard walked the stage as he played into his wireless mike, completely in control whether firing a solo to the lights, snapping his fingers in time at the side of the stage, or just standing center stage, eyes closed, letting the music wash over him. While his wireless freedom led Blanchard to play away from the audience, it would be wrong to think Blanchard's posture was anything like the “Miles As Garbo” stance Wallace Roney has down pat. And while Davis used younger musicians as a crutch in his last years, Blanchard's players only make him better.

“I don't wanna ruffle any more feathers,” Blanchard said while introducing “Harvesting Dance”, a Middle Eastern-influenced tune from Flow, “But I take exception to Ken Burns that there are no good young jazz musicians.” Over wild applause, he added, “They're out there, but (Burns) just doesn't go to those kinda gigs.” While his sense of humor flashed throughout the evening, on that subject Blanchard was deadly serious. Most of these players are half Blanchard's age, yet they are equal partners in this music. Almost all of Flow was written by Blanchard's bandmates, and the composition doesn't stop in the recording studio. “If you hear them tomorrow night or the next night,” Blanchard informed us, “it'll be totally different.”

Kendrick Scott was pinch-hitting for regular drummer Eric Harland at the Skidmore date; now Scott is a full-fledged member of the band, offering thunderous support on both analog and digital drums. Modern technology runs throughout this band - though it does not dominate - from Aaron Parks' bottom-enhancing synthesizer to the myriad effects pedals of guitarist Lionel Loueke. While Loueke's changed his primary instrument to acoustic guitar, his African vocalese and Frisellian effects bring a tasty edge to Blanchard's music. It is fitting that Hancock produced Flow, as both Parks' piano playing and writing style evoke Hancock's early works, particularly those on Maiden Voyage (Blue Note). Saxman Brice Winston is more than a foil for Blanchard; his solos dripped with meat and heat, especially during the Loueke composition “Wadagbe”, where he dropped his tenor for a Liebman-like soprano.

One of Blanchard's stories involved the percussive drumbeat Derrick Hodge played on his standup bass to produce the opening notes of “Flow”. As the song progressed into a “greezy” vamp, Blanchard showed us how he danced across the studio. Anything that gets Blanchard playing (and dancing) this well should definitely be encouraged. At a time where most musicians of his generation are looking backward, Terence Blanchard has his gaze firmly fixed on the future. And with a group of players this great, the future looks pretty damn bright.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.