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Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard &
Brice Winston

Fabian Almazan

Kendrick Scott

Brice Winston

Derrick Hodge, Terence Blanchard & Kendrick Scott

photos by Rudy Lu

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Skidmore Jazz Concert Series
Bernhard Theatre, Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
July 1, 2008

by J Hunter

Maybe it was Terence Blanchard's critically-acclaimed set at Freihofer's that had the queue snaking around the Bernhard Theatre almost an hour before showtime. Maybe the crowd had watched Blanchard tear up the Egg in 2005 – three weeks after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed Blanchard's New Orleans home – or they had attended Blanchard's 2002 performance at Skidmore Jazz Institute, accompanied by a band that would eventually become the weapons-grade sextet Flow.

Whatever the reason, concertgoers were stacked to the walls and sitting in the aisles by 7:45, which made Campus Security decidedly unhappy; Institute personnel had to turn latecomers away, because the Bernhard's capacity had long been exceeded. Given this was Blanchard's third Capital Region show this year (including the Monterey Jazz All-Stars' February visit to Proctors), you would think area jazz fans would have had their fill of the bespectacled trumpet master.

Yeah. Fat chance!

The crowd's cheers hadn't been gone long before Blanchard – casually dressed in an untucked striped shirt and wrinkled jeans with rolled-up cuffs – led his quintet into "Transform", using a foot-pedal synth to lay an ethereal chord over the bubbling introduction. Blanchard and Brice Winston's first chorus was almost muted, as was the band's general attack: Rather than go for the jugular, Blanchard opted for as more nuanced approach to the piece. That didn't mean Blanchard was a wallflower; he was stalking the stage soon enough, firing blinding fusillades up at the ceiling or into the floor. Blanchard expanded "transform" to overt twenty minutes, letting each player make his musical mark.

But the end of the piece was not the end, as Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott segued the band into "Levees", a piece from A Tale of God's Will (Blue Note, 2007), Blanchard's orchestral Katrina epic. He had played "Levees" and "Funeral Dirge" at Proctors, with Hodge and Scott as his rhythm section. But even though that medley was the highlight of that cold winter evening, the intensity level at Skidmore was much higher, particularly when Scott did the ghostly martial drum of "Dirge" while Blanchard laid down notes stuffed with loss and mourning. The emotionally-charged rollercoaster rode for thirty more minutes; at the end, Blanchard quickly wiped away a tear. Blanchard never left the stage once, even when another player was soloing. He either stood back near Hodge or took up residence in the crook of Fabian Almazan's piano, looking like a stone-faced music instructor; occasionally he would use a blue metallic shaker to accentuate a passage, or signal a change in intensity.

Mind you, it wasn't all deadpan. Blanchard flashed his wonderfully dry humor as he introduced the group, offering a quick story for almost every band member: We heard about Hodge's blossoming film-score work, Winston's campaign to improve musical instruction in the Tucson school system, and Scott's development of his label World Culture Music. (Blanchard also slyly referenced Scott's membership in Skidmore Jazz alumni.)

The one exception was Almazan, who hasn't been with the band long enough to get an anecdote of his own. I had to feel for Almazan as the 90-minute set went on. The curly-haired young Cuban certainly has some chops, or Blanchard wouldn't have let him near the bandstand, and everything Almazan played was technically excellent. But as the replacement for Blanchard's longtime keyboardist Aaron Parks, Almazan was clearly struggling to pick up the musical language the other four players spoke so fluently.

The flip side of that coin was Winston, whose tenor sax walks hand-in-glove with Blanchard's trumpet. Unlike some iconic NOLA trumpeters who shall remain nameless, Blanchard has no problem sharing the front line every night with a player of equal talent, and Winston's volcanic solo on Parks' "Harvesting Dance" was as great as anything Blanchard offered on this evening. Scott's drumming – unencumbered by all the samples Flow required – was as sharp as his dress-shirt-and-tie combo, never lacking for drama as he and Hodge continued their wondrous rhythmic partnership. Hodge had a Fender bass onstage, but (thankfully) he never picked it up, as he fearlessly plumbed the expressive depths of his double bass.

After all the evening's wildness, Blanchard encored with a hushed trio version of the standard "I Thought about You." Given his usual adherence to his own recordings, the choice was a very pleasant surprise. Then again, surprise is one of Terence Blanchard's specialties. It's one of the many reasons why the Bernhard was SRO on this magical night

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) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.