Terence Blanchard's Spiritual Magnetism
May 22 2013
“I’ve always believed that in life, what you keep in your mind is what you draw to yourself.” That’s how trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard explains the title of his 20th album, Magnetic, which finds a stunning variety of sounds and styles pulled together by the irresistible force of Blanchard’s vision.
That credo stems directly from Blanchard’s personal faith; raised in the Christian church, he has turned in recent years to Buddhism after meditating with Herbie Hancock while on the road with the legendary pianist. The idea of a spiritual magnetism “is a basic concept in any type of religion,” he says. “Both Christianity and Buddhism have forms of meditation - one’s called prayer and one’s called chanting. But it’s all about drawing on those things to help you attain enlightenment in your life at the same time that you’re trying to give back to the community.”
Magnetic gives expression to that belief through the combined voices of Blanchard’s always-scintillating quintet. Its latest incarnation brings together longtime members Brice Winston (saxophone) and Kendrick Scott (drums) with pianist Fabian Almazan, who made his debut with the group on its 2009 album Choices, and its newest member, 21-year-old bass prodigy Joshua Crumbly. In addition, they’re joined by a trio of remarkable special guests: master bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke.
The vast array of approaches undertaken by that ensemble is striking, from the blistering bop of “Don’t Run” to the fragile ballad “Jacob’s Ladder;” the psychedelic electronic haze of “Hallucinations” to the urgent edginess of “Another Step.” As Blanchard says, “It’s a wide range of musical ideas that come together through the efforts of the guys in the band.”
Magnetic marks Blanchard’s return to Blue Note Records, which last released A Tale of God’s Will, his triumphant 2007 requiem for his home city, New Orleans, in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. That harrowingly emotional song cycle is just one of many large-scale projects Blanchard has undertaken in recent years. Since first writing music for Spike Lee’s 1990 jazz-set movie Mo’ Better Blues, Blanchard has become a renowned film composer with over 50 scores to his credit, most recently the WWII drama Red Tails for producer George Lucas.
This summer, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis will combine forces to premiere Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, an “Opera in Jazz” based on the story of the gay boxing champion Emile Griffith. This follows his recent score for Emily Mann’s Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
After the broad scope of such lofty undertakings, returning to a small group setting can be a challenge. “You get accustomed to having so many different colors at your disposal,” he says. “So I try to figure out a way to have as much diversity in everything that we play, the same expansive color palette as when you have an orchestra and voices.”
One way that Blanchard expands his palette on Magnetic is through the use of electronics, creating an overdriven, electric guitar-like sound for his horn during “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song” or brewing the mind-altering atmospherics of “Hallucinations.”
The latter tune, though titled by Blanchard’s 14-year-old daughter, also touches on the lifelong spiritual search evoked by the album-opening title track and “Central Focus,” which was originally recorded twenty years ago on Blanchard’s album Simply Stated. “When chanting for meditation,” he says, “you can have those moments of reflection that will bring new ideas to you. Some people may not call them hallucinations, but I think they’re all related in some fashion.”
Not every tune comes from such profound motives. The hard-bopping “Don’t Run” was written solely with the intention of allowing the band to joust with Ravi Coltrane’s soprano and Ron Carter’s mighty bass runs. The title was inspired by a taunt from Carter to Blanchard, asking only half-jokingly when the trumpeter would call on the legendary bassist’s services. “Stop running from me, man,” Blanchard recalls him saying, and when Carter speaks, you listen.
Coltrane’s contributions, which also include a taut, powerhouse turn on tenor for “Pet Step Sitter’s Theme Song,” came about simply because Blanchard was blown away by the saxophonist’s latest album, Spirit Fiction. “Ravi has developed a style and a sound that’s very unique,” Blanchard explains. “It’s an incredible feat given who his father was and what instrument his father played. But his being on my record has nothing to do with any of that; his being on my record is simply due to the fact that I love the way he plays.”
The same goes for Benin-born Lionel Loueke, who first came to prominence through Blanchard’s quintet before becoming widely renowned as one of the most innovative guitarists and vocalists in modern jazz. “He’s a very unique talent,” Blanchard says. “Lionel always brings a certain spirit and energy to any project that he’s a part of.”
Blanchard also readily sings the praises of his core group, which has been evolving over two years together to reach the deeply attuned point at which Magnetic finds them. “I’ve always appreciated the artistry of Brice and Kendrick,” he says of the band’s two veterans. “They’ve very seriously committed to developing their own unique styles of playing.”
Of newcomer Crumbly, he says, “Josh is a young guy who’s very talented and brings a lot to the group.” And of Almazan, he continues, “Fabian has been growing by leaps and bounds. His harmonic knowledge has taken the band in interesting directions and he colors things in ways that I think are very fresh and forward-thinking.”
So enamored is the bandleader of Almazan’s talents that he affords the pianist a solo spotlight, the captivating “Comet.” Almazan, Blanchard says, “plays with such grace and beauty. We did five or six takes and all of them were so beautiful that it was a hard to choose just one.”
Each member of the group provides their own contributions to the album: Crumbly, the lovely and delicate “Jacob’s Ladder;” Scott, the forceful, rhythmically intense “No Borders Just Horizons;” Winston the lithe and intricate “Time To Spare;” and Almazan an “emotional roller coaster” dedicated to his mother, “Pet Step Sitters Theme Song,” which is later reprised as “Another Step.”
“We had so much fun playing that tune that we just couldn’t leave it,” Blanchard explains. I thought it showed the diverse nature of the group, when you see the directions that it goes into, totally different from the first take.”
In his role as mentor to his younger bandmates, Blanchard takes the mantle from his own onetime mentor, Art Blakey. Stressing the importance for young musicians to compose as well as improvise, Blanchard recalls the legendary drummer’s advice: “Art Blakey told us that composition was the path to finding your own voice. If you improvise, you don’t sit down and reflect coldly on what it is you’re playing because you’re moving so quickly onto the next thing. Whereas when you compose, you have to sit down and really contemplate what each note means and how you get from one to the next. That in itself will create a style.”
Terence Blanchard’s own style continues to evolve and expand in exciting and compelling fashion. Magnetic is sure to capture listeners with an attractive power nearly impossible to resist.