Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
The Skidmore Jazz Institute’s first guest artist of 2012 acknowledged the Institute students packing the front row at Zankel Music Center with a gesture that meant one of two things: “I see you” or “Watch this!” Now, anyone who’s ever watched “Top Gear” knows that the latter statement usually precedes a truly hideous accident. But this was trumpeter Terence Blanchard, whose previous feats of musical magic had pulled in a Standing Room Only Crowd, and the former artist-in-residence proceeded to leave us all slack-jawed one more time.
It wasn’t Blanchard who got the ball rolling, though: It was Brice Winston who launched the new piece “Time to Spare” with a frenetic figure buoyed by drummer Kendrick Scott’s brilliant work underneath Winston’s razor-edged tenor. The rest of the band fell in behind to establish the melody, but no sooner had they done that than Blanchard stepped to the back of the stage while Winston launched his first solo. It was a move typical of Blanchard, who’s always given his people plenty of room to move. Mind you, that freedom comes with the understanding that whoever takes the spotlight better carry the load and then some, because when Blanchard does come out of the blocks, anyone not working at the proper rate of creative speed is going to be steamrolled.
Blanchard plays with a wireless mic, which allows him to move around the stage – walking, stopping, stooping, bending but always conjuring up original music of ungodly depth and power, giving voice to every emotion under the sun: joy, anger, sadness, gratitude and any other feeling you can name. His horn makes a sound that’s less a series of notes than it is a call to all with ears, “Some shit’s about to go down, and it’s goin’ down RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!” I couldn’t see the faces of the Institute students in the front row, but there were a few of them in my row on the side of the auditorium, and their expressions were that of someone seeing something both terrifyingly beautiful and completely unbelievable.
Winston was part of Terence Blanchard’s Flow, a devastating sextet that featured wunderkinds-turned-monsters-in-their-own-right Aaron Parks and Lionel Loueke, and it took all of one high-flying chorus for Winston to make everyone forget his successor in the sax chair, Institute alum Walter Smith III. Smith has gone on to do fine work with Ambrose Akinmusire and fellow Blanchard alum Eric Harland, but he was never a comfortable fit with Blanchard; in contrast, Winston’s muscular voice and stirring sense of lyric goes hand-in-glove with the death-defying approach Blanchard takes to everything he does, and having him back is like finding that favorite thing you’ve been missing for way too long.
Keyboardist Fabian Almazan started with Blanchard about the same time as Smith, and I remember being disappointed with both Smith and Almazan’s initial appearance with Blanchard at Skidmore’s Filene Recital Hall in 2007. But unlike Smith, who needed to get out from under Blanchard to start making creative headway, Almazan has gloriously broken out of the Latin bag he lived in to become a player of power and range, with a nice sense of structure and a strong affinity for chaos thrown in. His electric keyboard added sizzle to Loueke’s “Wagabe,” while Blanchard blew us all down with effects-box harmonies. Alamazan played acoustic and comped electric on Smith’s jumping composition “Him or Me,” and he sampled African wind instruments on Blanchard’s knock-down, drag-em-out encore. On the flip side, Alamazan showed his softer side by spinning beautiful meditations to bookend Parks’ unrecorded work “Ashay’.”
As you may have guessed, Blanchard’s band has always had a cadre of young killers out to make their bones. This group’s rookie is Joshua Crumbly, a 20-year old bassist who’s still attending Juilliard in New York City. He replaces Derrick Hodge, who had been part of Blanchard’s steady-eddie rhythm section for the better part of 10 years. So no pressure, right? Apparently not, as Crumbly kept the foundation fat and happy while Scott found new and different ways to keep jazz drums surprising. Blanchard busted on Scott’s tendency to pull musical moves from beyond left field, but it’s that peerless level of integrity and creativity that put Scott ahead of every drummer in his generation… and keeps him there today.
While Blanchard’s between-tunes monologues can split your sides with laughter, the glowing praise he gave Skidmore Jazz Institute (and Skidmore in general) was no joke. “I love what you do here,” he said more than once, and in his closing remarks he said, “You do God’s work.” That’s heady stuff. The thing is, though, you always get the sense when Blanchard plays that he’s plugged into something phenomenally spiritual that comes from someplace beyond this world, so maybe he can make comments like that and not have them sound trite. That’s heady stuff, too, I know, and there’s no way I can quantify that statement with mere words. All I will say is that Terence Blanchard needs to be experienced, by jazz fans and jazz newbies alike. And if you hear him just once, I’ll guarantee you’ll see what I mean.
The Skidmore Jazz Institute presents another great concert at 8pm tonight (Tuesday, July 3) with Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Quintet Sound Prints stepping into the spotlight at Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs. In addition to the band’s co-leaders saxman Lovano and trumpeter Douglas, their all-star band also features pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Joey Baron. Admission is free.