Terence Blanchard: Animal Magnetism

Down deepest, beneath everything he does, underlying all the facets of his ever-expanding career in music, Terence Blanchard is still a New Orleans guy. Question that and you can hear his dander rise.

"Even people from New Orleans don't associate me with the music community down here, because they don't see me out and about doing that," Blanchard says via cell phone one afternoon from New Orleans. "But then there will be moments. I did a gig one night at Preservation Hall with those guys, and everybody was shocked. People were coming up to me and saying, 'I didn't know you could do that!' I'm like, dude, come on now. I grew up listening to this stuff all day, every day. You can't grow up in New Orleans and not hear it. It may not be the focal point of what it is that I do today, but it's still a part of my life. It's always been and always will be.

"Part of my thing about living down here is to prove that, along with all the other great artists that have come from here, while we are from New Orleans, we are still of the world. New Orleans is a great place to learn jazz, because you can get a strong foundation of the core elements of what this music has been and how it developed. At the same time, this is still a breeding ground for innovation because there are always guys who are coming up with crazy ideas. You don't hear about them because it's not New York, and we don't have major record labels down here signing artists left and right, but there are always guys who are trying to push the envelope down here, it's just part of who we are."

If his role as "New Orleans musician" is Blanchard's best-kept secret, chances are the thing you did know about is the title of "film composer," the one he wears most often these days. With over 40 scores to his credit, Blanchard is one of the most successful jazz musicians to ever work in the film business. He began that career with a bang, breaking through in the early 1990s with scores for the Spike Lee films Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn. In more recent years he's scored other films for Lee (Inside Man, 2006; Miracle of St. Ann, 2008), as well as titles for other directors, including Glitter (2001), Cadillac Records (2008), and, most recently, Red Tails (2012). On Red Tails, he worked for the first time with Star Wars creator George Lucas, the film's executive producer.

"George is amazing, great to work with, and very encouraging. He's the type of guy who puts a lot of trust in the people he hires. He's not going to tell you the music needs to be a certain thing. I remember he said, 'I know it's going to be fine, I know it's going to be fine,' and I said, 'No, I'd really like to play something for you.' Once I did, he said, 'Okay, that's great, but you need to go bigger.' All his movies have that big, sweeping orchestral sound to them. He's very different from Spike, but you know there are similarities between the two as well. They both really love strong melodic content. And they like to have a lot of musical content that people will identify with."

"Being a film composer has really made me think about the arc of telling the story," he continues. "The same thing happens when we're doing a live show. When I first started working in film, I immediately stopped thinking about having a collection of tunes on an album or playing a collection of tunes during a show, and began to think of a show or a record evolving from one thing to the next, and how those things, along with little subplots in between, could help tell a general story."

His latest scoring project is Black Nativity, a film based on a Langston Hughes poem, starring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Jennifer Hudson, and directed by Kasi Lemmons, for release in the 2013 Christmas season. Blanchard also began work this summer on a film whose working title is Rootie Tootie. It's being directed by Daniel Algrant, whom Blanchard worked with on People I Know (2002), a lesser work that starred Téa Leoni, Kim Basinger, and Al Pacino. "I'm really excited about that one. It stars Christopher Walken, who plays a jazz pianist, and it's a hell of a story."

In a new wrinkle, the New Orleans booster/musician and successful film composer has added "opera composer" to his growing list of identities. In June 2013, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered Champion, Blanchard's first opera, based on the story of gay boxer Emile Griffith, whose nationally televised fight with Benny Paret, in 1962, resulted in Paret's death. The opera's libretto is by playwright Michael Cristofer, and the cast featured singers Arthur Woodley, Denyce Graves, Robert Orth, Aubrey Allicock, and Meredith Arwady. The production was directed by James Robinson and conducted by George Manahan. The closest thing to opera Blanchard had done previously was the score for Emily Mann's Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, in 2012. Like his film work, composing for opera has broadened his horizons. Learning new things is a process he clearly relishes, and is what makes him such a fascinating presence to follow.


"It is the reverse of working on a film, in my opinion. With opera, I have the libretto, which is basically the script, and I am creating all these scenic backdrops musically, and then creating all the dialogue melodically. Then the singers come in and they stage it and act, and it goes into a whole other realm which is totally opposite of what I'm used to in film. I'm used to looking at something and reacting. Now these guys are listening to the music and reacting.

"Listening to Denyce talk about it, she talked about how, most times, they come to a project where there is a serious history behind it. This is so different for them, because they are creating precedent for what this is going to be in the future. What's also very different for them in this process is that I am giving them a ton of room, which is something they are not accustomed to. Being opera singers, they are very much accustomed to people telling them the music goes this way, and I'm telling them, 'No, this is my idea, but I need you to feel comfortable singing it, so if you need to change a note here or change a note there, I'm fine with all that.'"

At the moment, it's unclear whether or not Champion will be recorded. "It's a bit of a struggle, because opera recordings are not the most lucrative thing on the planet, but we feel that this is something special that needs to be documented."

Given his many interests and pursuits, it's easy to forget that Blanchard's main gig, the one he was once best known for, is as a jazz trumpeter. In that capacity, his shining new record, Magnetic (Blue Note), could serve as a metaphor for his intensely creative personality, one that his bandmates continually marvel over and take as an example to emulate.

"When I think about playing the drums, I get so overwhelmed. There is so much I want to get to," says drummer Kendrick Scott. "When we're playing a gig, and the drums are messing with me a little bit, and Terence is playing the trumpet, and I'm like wow, Terence is ridiculous—and then, after the set, he goes back to the room and writes film music. And the next day he's flying to Miami to teach at the Mancini Institute. And then he's working in his community. And I'm still dealing with the drums. And oh, he's also doing an opera, as well as a film at the same time. He's one of the people who has motivated me to go beyond my limit. That's why he pushes us to be composers. And he pushes us to be teachers. And in order to make a real living in music, that's one of the things that has to happen."

Magnetic is Blanchard's his first recorded collection of originals since Choices (2009), which mixed spoken-word interludes with jazz pieces and performances by soul singer Bilal. The new album was spectacularly well recorded at Avatar Studios, in New York City, by engineer Frank Wolf. It features Blanchard's extraordinary working quintet of tenor saxophonist Brice Winston, pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Joshua Crumbly, and drummer Scott.

"Just like the last couple of records with this particular group, we take stuff on the road, work on some ideas, and as we flesh them out, they start to reveal themselves to us," Blanchard says. "The two new things that I had brought in were 'Magnetic' and 'Hallucinations,' and Kendrick brought in 'No Borders Just Horizons,' but everything else we had been playing."

Magnetic contains several compositions from the band's youngest members, Almazan and Crumbly. Almazan's "Pet Step Sitter's Theme Song" is dedicated to his mother, who worked as a pet sitter. The tune spawned two other tracks: "Comet" was originally the intro to "Pet Step Sitter's Theme Song," but was so beguiling that Blanchard decided to make it a separate piece. The entire "Pet Step Sitters" tune is reprised as "Another Step."

"When he came in with that tune, you could tell he was really growing creatively. It's one of those tunes that's challenging for everybody to play," Blanchard says. "When it gets to my solo, it gives me a lot of room, and I could have taken it in a whole lotta other directions, one of which became the track 'Another Step,' which is basically another take of the same tune."

Perhaps Magnetic's most striking number is "Jacob's Ladder," a ballad by recent Julliard grad Crumbly. "He was a little nervous about composing something, but he'd been going to Juilliard, and was actually in a workshop I gave there on composition, which I thought was pretty funny. He's coming along. We constantly talk to him about change. I know the guys are talking to him about developing and growth as well."

A number of listeners, including the New York Times critic Nate Chinen, have mentioned how much Blanchard's quintet reminds them of the Miles Davis quintets of the 1960s, a connection made more explicit with the addition of two of Magnetic's guests, bassist Ron Carter and tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Carter anchored the Davis quintet of 1964 through 1968, while Ravi's father, John Coltrane, was part of Davis's first great quintet, the band that made Kind of Blue (1959), before departing in 1960 for a glorious solo career. A rollicking blues number, Blanchard's "Don't Run," features both guests.

"There's a story behind that one," the trumpeter says. "The first International Jazz Day at the UN, I played that morning in New Orleans and then got on a plane and flew to New York. I get there, and I'm hanging out with Ron Carter before the thing starts, and Ron is always telling me, 'You gotta call me when you come to New York, let's have dinner or something.' And I've always been the type of dude, I'm not very good at that type of stuff, you know. So Ron, he cornered me, and said, 'Hey man, stop running from me! Don't run! Don't run! It's time for us. We need to work together. We need to do something.' I laughed and said 'Okay,' and then I wrote that little melody, to pay homage to that moment.

"Ravi is something else. Not only did he pick the same instrument as his father, but he chose to have his own identity—and he's doing a great job! You would think that all the guys that have come along playing that instrument, trying to play like his dad, that he would have been one of them, but he's not. I mean, he has his own sound, his own style. The last record he put out [Spirit Fiction, 2012] I thought was phenomenal. I love it!"

Perhaps the most unusual sound on Magnetic is the way in which Blanchard uses a TC-Helicon Harmonizer to change the sound of his horn. Unlike many younger jazz musicians who use electronics to the point of distortion, Blanchard's tinkering with sound is restrained, and for the most part sounds organic and tasteful.

"Part of that comes from my background being a film composer, trying to create ambient sounds and different colors for film. The more I got into that in the film world, the more I started seeing possibilities for that in my jazz playing. It's something that we have fun with. Fabian is really great at it too. The Helicon has a number of effects on it. There's harmonization, it has reverb, delay, distortion, a bunch of different things. I don't use the distortion. I try to create some other types of colors that sound realistic. I have some other ideas about those things in the future that are kind of a technical challenge, so I need to find someone to help me."

In leading his quintet, Blanchard follows the example of Art Blakey, in whose famed Jazz Messengers he served from 1982 to 1986, as a replacement for Wynton Marsalis. "Art's whole thing was, you learn how to develop your style and your musical identity through composition. The more you have to commit those notes and harmonies to paper, the more you learn about yourself. Art always treated his bands like workshops, where everybody had to contribute, and that's kinda the way I look at my group.

"The introduction to the tune 'Hallucinations' was never intended to go on that long, but those guys started to get into something. The same thing happened at the end of 'Pet Step Sitter's Theme Song.' That was supposed to have an ending with the horns sustaining the last note, but then they got into a groove and started creating all these other things, and I just let them go."

"The scary thing," says drummer Scott, "and it hasn't really been talked about that much, but since I joined the band, every guy in the band has been signed to a record deal. Terence is into training bandleaders. He learned that from Art Blakey. I have to mention, with the passing of Mulgrew Miller, he was one of those guys as well. I learned from him and Terence that it's not only about playing your instrument, but it's about being a great human being, and being a bandleader on your instrument at all times. No matter what band you're in, you're a bandleader, and you should carry yourself that way. What I love to say is that Terence is always in command and out of control. I was looking at this military thing, and it was talking about this general and how he won this war, and said he was in command and he let his people lead. His people had ideas and he let them run with it. And that's what Terence does. He's always giving us some guidance, just to open the blinds for us. He doesn't say, 'Go outside.' He lets you see the light."

Allen Fant's picture

Very well done RB!  Like so many before him, TB is another New Orleans musical treasure.