TERENCE BLANCHARD QUINTET
Filene Recital Hall
Saratoga Springs, NY
April 3, 2009
by J Hunter
Last year, Skidmore College awarded Terence Blanchard the 2008-2009 McCormack Endowed Visiting Artist-Scholar Residency an honor thats been held by Joshua Redman and Nnenna Freelon, as well as by authors Michael Ondaatje & Sir Jonathan Miller and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. Students involved in Blanchards seminars studied Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, both through visits to the Crescent City and concentrated examination of Blanchards musical opus A Tale of Gods Will: Requiem for Katrina. Blanchard must have developed some pretty hungry students, because they were practically hanging from the rafters in the jam-packed hall when Blanchard and sax player Walter Smith III walked into Filene Recital Hall to the delicious groove of Smiths composition Los.
It takes serious work to match Roy Haynes sartorial splendor, but Blanchard gave it the old (Skidmore) college try: Black jacket, untucked off-white silk shirt with matching show kerchief, blue jeans, oversized watch chain hanging from the belt, and white sneakers with just enough rhinestones to catch the light. The outfit brought it all in the Suit Jazz look Wynton Marsalis revived, the come-as-you-are vibe Miles Davis initiated as part of his electric metamorphosis, and the hip-hop fashions favored by current players like Christian McBride. At the end of the day, though, Blanchard could have come out wearing a plain purple business suit and it wouldnt have mattered when he hit that first unerring note.
Blanchards been using a wireless mic for as long as Ive been watching him, and the reason is visibly understandable: This music whether its new stuff like drummer Kendrick Scotts Touched by an Angel or past classics like Aaron Parks epic Harvesting Dance reaches down into Blanchards soul, and tying him to a static spot onstage wouldnt let him fully experience what hes playing. Blanchard walks the stage, playing to the floor, the ceiling, the band, the walls, sending complex figures and laser-guided blasts into the air as the audience sits with their jaws hanging progressively lower. Smiths Him or Me had one of those moments where Blanchard is one gear ahead of everybody else, finding new way to take his solo higher, and higher, and higher still.
When he came back to earth after Los, Blanchard informed us that most of the music on the program was set to appear on a new Blue Note disc sometime this fall; he also ran down the band personnel, of whom he said, I look at them as the future of this music. Since Parks and guitarist Lionel Loueke went out on their own, Blanchards group has been going through a slow change process. Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan was the first step in that process, replacing Parks as Blanchard slimmed his combo down to a quintet. Id criticized Almazans hesitancy at last years Skidmore Jazz Institute show, and I wasnt happy to see that quality rear its head at this show. However, Alamazan is getting better at establishing his comfort zones, so while his solo openings offered little, he showed he can be a titanic closer and vital support player. His discordant comp towards the end of Harvesting really upped the urgency.
More band turnover came with longtime tenorman Brice Winstons departure, and only time will tell if Smith will be a satisfactory replacement. Like Almazan, Smith needs to find a Happy Place before he goes to town, but when he does get good, hes very good, and hes a solid composer if the pieces played here are any indication. Hes also a Skidmore Jazz Institute alum like Scott, who is becoming more of a force-of-nature with each passing year. Blanchard didnt say who is playing bass for him nowadays, but Matt Brewer was pinch-hitting with only one rehearsal under his belt, though it sure didnt show on his hellacious in-the-clear solo prior to Los.
The tonnage of great jazz we see every year totally undercuts the Albany is a cultural wasteland meme, and Skidmores various concert series are a big part of that. However, its rare that a musician can give anything else besides the occasional workshop. While Blanchards Filene Recital Hall show was as hard-hitting as anything weve seen him do, his year-long work with Skidmore students on understanding Katrina and the acts of humanity, and inhumanity, that surrounded it will leave an even bigger mark.
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.