Thursday, August 22, 2013

SPOTLIGHT - Terence Blanchard: A Prolific Film Score Writer

Terence Blanchard in New Orleans: A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)

Many know Terence Blanchard best as a jazz trumpet player--vital in the '80s young lion movement, a hard bopper, a former Musical Director in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1984-88) and subsequent leader of his own dynamic quintet ever since, as well as the Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Others (many unknowingly) have been introduced to Blanchard in another way entirely: through the films of Spike Lee. Blanchard has written nearly all of Lee's film scores since the 1989 drama Do The Right Thing. The following year, Lee and Blanchard collaborated to produce the romanticized jazz flick Mo' Better Blues, which starred a budding Denzel Washington as Bleek Gillium, a caricature of a prototypical young lion hard bop trumpet player (Terence Blanchard, among others). To prepare for his role, Washington was said to have intensely studied Blanchard in jazz clubs--his posture, embouchure, breathing and fingering. Blanchard worked with Branford Marsalis' Quartet to produce a live jazz film score, which is featured (or perhaps, is the feature) throughout the film.

Mo' Better Blues: A Spike Lee Joint

Over the past two decades, Blanchard has produced an immense body of film score work by writing fresh, personalized orchestral arrangements around his soulful jazz quintet. Today, Blanchard is without a doubt the most prolific jazz artist to compose for film. What's more, his distinct, lyrical sound on trumpet is recognizable in just about any of his scores--in the middle of Spike Lee's seminal Malcolm X for example, or his box office hit 25th Hour, you suddenly hear Blanchard cooing a theme over strings. By 1999, Blanchard's notoriety in film had made waves back to the jazz world, sparking his album Jazz In Film, in which Blanchard teamed up with fellow young lion vets (Donald Harrison, Kenny Kirkland, Reginald Veal, and others) to rendition classic themes from film scores past--Bernard Hermann's sultry theme from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder, and even Blanchard's very own work from Spike Lee's Clockers. There is perhaps no artist better suited to bridge film score into jazz (although, Wayne Shorter also tops the list, with his spontaneous and whimsical use of John Williams quotes).

Blanchard's melancholic ode "Funeral Dirge," with the Metropole Orkest in Rotterdam, 2007

For his 2006 HBO documentary on post-Katrina New Orleans, When The Levees Broke, Spike Lee commissioned Blanchard, a New Orleans-native, to compose an original score. Blanchard featured his quintet alongside the Northwest Sinfonia (which he conducted and co-orchestrated), expanding the film score into the feature-length album A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina), his most ambitious, and personal compositional endeavor yet. A Tale of God's Will takes Lee's post-Katrina narrative to the next level. Without Blanchard's score, the documentary would feel lacking. At the same time, Blanchard's heartfelt musical tribute stands strong on its own. Many agreed, as A Tale of God's Will earned Blanchard his first Grammy Award as a bandleader for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Always a mentor, just like Art Blakey, Blanchard commissioned his young sidemen to contribute their own perspective through composition. Among them, Aaron Parks, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott have all emerged in recent years as leaders in a new wave of jazz artists.

Since A Tale of God's Will, Blanchard has maintained a steady regiment of film score work (including George Lucas' Red Tails) while also branching and composing for musicals and, most recently, opera. Still, Blanchard has never strayed from his jazz roots, his identity. He once told Down Beat, "Writing for film is fun, but nothing can beat being a jazz musician, playing a club, playing a concert." With the release of his latest jazz album Magnetic (2013), Blanchard is clearly juggling both careers just fine. The two have never really been mutually exclusive. To the contrary, the lyricism, clarity, compelling themes and fresh arranging heard in Blanchard's film scores are also transparent in his jazz group. No doubt, Blanchard's work in film score is a big reason he's one of the hippest voices in jazz today.

Terence Blanchard will perform with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and Beninese guitarist Lionel Luocke to kick off Season 2 at the new SFJAZZ Center. Blanchard's four-night residency goes from September 5-8, in the Robert N. Miner Auditorium.

**The SPOTLIGHT Series probes into the careers and unique, lesser-known aspects of the artists featured at the SFJAZZ Center.

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