Recording of August 2013: Magnetic
Terence Blanchard, trumpet; Brice Winston, tenor saxophone; Fabian Almazan, piano; Joshua Crumbly, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums. With: Ravi Coltrane, soprano & tenor saxophone; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Ron Carter, bass.
Blue Note 75419 2 (CD). Terence Blanchard, Robin Burgess, prods.; Frank Wolf, prod., eng.; Tyler Hatman, asst. eng. DDD. TT: 68:05
For all those who hold dear the notion that jazz has seen its best daysthat, like classical music, it now lacks star power (no more Birds, Mileses, or Coltranes on the marquees), has already said much of what it had to say, and what's left is merely esoteric noodling or soulless bop-by-rote mopping upthere is Terence Blanchard. Once the archetypal sideman, this New Orleanian contemporary of Donald Harrison and Wynton Marsalis has become a successful leader. His poise, generous spirit, and workaholic lifestyle not to mention his instantly recognizable trumpet tonehave quietly made him one of the leading figures in today's jazz mainstream.
His latest release, Magnetic, represents a return to Blue Note, which released several of his records earlier this century, and is the 20th album in an increasingly distinguished career. In it, Blanchard has again come up with a poison pill for those convinced that jazz now only repeats itself. Gleaming and sleek, yet not without heart and emotion, Blanchard's mainstream jazz is a not overtly melodic post-bop blend, that continue's to add a dash of this and a pinch of that to keep things entertaining and enlightening.
One of the greatest strengths of Blanchard's albums is the fact that his band is a creative democracy, a logical outcome of his dedication to teaching and mentoring, and a skill he learned from his years in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Magnetic's second track, "Jacob's Ladder," is a composition by bassist Joshua Crumbly, who graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in May 2013. Beginning as a slow, introspective study of mostly piano and cymbals, the track builds on ever more urgent wisps from longtime Blanchard collaborator Brice Winston's tenor saxophone, until the bandleader comes in and, using electronicsin this case, reverb and an effect that gives the impression of a pair of trumpets, one pitched slightly lowerturns the tune upward, into a shimmering clarion call. That Blanchard, a jazz veteran, would take a chance by recording a very young player's composition, shows an impressive leap of faith.
"That's his idea about leadership," says Winston. "He chooses musicians who are alive and thinking and growing; who are self-motivated to get better and change things. He's open to whatever the journey is going to be, with everyone giving their input. I think he thinks it's gonna be a much grander vision than what he could imagine by himself."
Magnetic's most playful and accessible number, "Don't Run," is a classic blues in which guest tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (here playing soprano) and Blanchard double lines, swerve into and out of each other's path, before each taking a long, joyful solo. Bassist Ron Carter, the tune's inspiration, is an insistent presence throughout the track. Several band members can be heard encouraging Blanchard during his solo flight. Like every track of this marvelously engineered album, "Don't Run" is a single continuous live take recorded at Avatar Studios, on the west side of New York City.
The use of electronicswhich, more often than not in jazz, have been used for evil rather than good, to clutter rather than clarify, for showy effect rather than adding anything coherent to the storyhas, in Blanchard's judicious hands, become a very tasteful flavor in his music. Electronic effects appear in many of Magnetic's tunes, and are especially noticeable on Blanchard's horn in "Pet Step Sitter's Theme Song." They reach their peak in "Hallucinations," a mid-tempo wandering that opens with a thicket of soundssome more space-rock than jazz, and many from guest Lionel Loueke's guitarthat squirt and squeak among piano glissandos and a pleasing, varied racket from the resourceful drummer, Kendrick Scott, who uses kick drums of different sizes to achieve beguiling tonalities. Coltrane returns, this time on tenor, and Blanchard plays fast, choppy passages and long legato lines, all amplified and/or echoed using a harmonizer, which he also uses to bend and twist notes.
Winston and Scott, who have themselves dabbled in using the kind of harmonizer that Blanchard prefers, appreciate the flavors it can add. "I don't think Terence is looking to go all electronic or anything," Winston says. "I think his vision is acoustic music enhanced by electronics." Scott says that "There's 'Press Play' electronics vs the improvisatory electronics, and we are definitely improvisatory. We try to use them only in the moment. We try to meld it within the music, and we choose sounds that we know Terence really digs. And sometimes we even challenge him with sounds that he doesn't. A lot of times, our imaginations get freed by something that we hear. Like [pianist] Fabian [Almazan] will play something on the keyboard, and it will totally free us from thinking straight ahead."
If Magnetic is any guide, there's not much danger that this quintet or its leader will be thinking too straight ahead anytime soon. Though it might be a bit cool to the touch or not conventionally melodic enough for some, Magnetic is the sound of jazz growing in meaningful ways.Robert Baird