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JAZZ : New Jack Meets a Young Lion : Terence Blanchard's soundtracks for Spike Lee films have grabbed Hollywood's attention, but his vision stretches from orchestral pieces to small performance groups

August 15, 1993|RICHARD GUILLIATT | Richard Guilliatt is a free-lance writer based in New York.

NEW YORK — An open suitcase spilled clothes on the floor just inside the front door of Terence Blanchard's Brooklyn apartment. Having just returned from a trip to his New Orleans birthplace, the trumpeter was about to leave for Hollywood to meet the director of "Mantis," a two-hour television pilot for which Blanchard will compose a jazz score. Just don't ask him who the director is.

"To be honest, man, I have no idea," Blanchard says, laughing as he pushes his black rectangular-framed glasses up on his nose. "I have the details around here somewhere, but. . . ."

Things are moving fast for this puckish 31-year-old--so fast that when Blanchard recently agreed to score the new Wesley Snipes film, "Sugar Hill," the press release announcing the deal was barely out before he had finished the recording session. Blanchard's soundtracks for the Spike Lee films "Jungle Fever" and "Malcolm X" have attracted Hollywood's attention and made him one of the first of the new jazz Wunderkinder to graduate from small-group hard bop to larger orchestrated works.

"I've always wanted to make music that would unfold like a film or theater piece," he says. "I grew up listening to classical music and opera. And when you listen to some of Duke Ellington and (Charles) Mingus' stuff, you hear these larger works."

Thursday through Saturday at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, Blanchard's quintet will play music from another of those larger works, "The Malcolm X Jazz Suite," the trumpeter's third album as a jazz leader for Columbia Records. The suite is a 74-minute song cycle that uses a melodic motif from the "Malcolm X" soundtrack as the launching point for a portrait of the slain black leader sketched by Blanchard and his young band--drummer Troy Davis, bassist Tarus Mateen, pianist Bruce Bath and tenor sax player Sam Newsome.

Like a lot of new jazz, "The Malcolm X Jazz Suite" exudes a classicist's reverence for the small-group sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s; the undulating Latinized rhythms of "Malcolm at Peace" recall Horace Silver, while the airy interweaving lines of Blanchard and Newsome seem to pay direct homage to Miles Davis and John Coltrane circa 1959. But the scale of this piece, with its interconnected compositions that return repeatedly to the same pensive melody line, points to Blanchard's wider ambitions.

It was partly frustration that inspired "The Malcolm X Jazz Suite." Blanchard had labored mightily over his soundtrack to "Malcolm X," spurred by Lee's advice to think big (the director suggested he go see "Spartacus"). The final soundtrack--which incorporated a 60-piece orchestra, large jazz ensemble, the Harlem Boys Choir, a bevy of supporting players and a dash of Middle Eastern oud music--was widely regarded as Blanchard's most ambitious and fully realized work. But the performer in him was frustrated at having only one chance to hear the music performed, so he recast some of the ideas for a small group.

Blanchard has worked on every Spike Lee film except the first, "She's Gotta Have It," and he has already agreed to compose the soundtrack for the next, "Crooklyn," in January. The trumpeter's newly renovated duplex is about half a mile from the director's Forty Acres and a Mule operation in the artistically thriving black neighborhood of Ft. Greene, N.Y. Yet Lee and Blanchard are something of an odd couple--one a provocateur whose films helped shape the "New Jack" radical aesthetic, the other a traditionalist who is part of the neoconservative "Young Lions" movement in jazz.

Indeed, Blanchard recalls that the first time he heard Malcolm X's voice, he felt more discomfort than empathy. "It scared the s--- out of me," he recalls. "I was 13, living in New Orleans in a summer jazz program, and we were playing outside in a park when they put a Malcolm X album on during a break." In his most radical Nation of Islam mode, Malcolm was denouncing "blue-eyed devils" and "Uncle Toms" to the cheers of a crowd that was gathered a decade after his death.

"People are sitting there going, 'Yeah!' and I'm thinking, 'Now wait a minute,' " Blanchard says, recalling that his ambivalence was made worse by the fact that he had never heard of Malcolm X. "At that time in my life, I was just starting to come to terms with what was going on in this country. Before that, man, I was naive."

The year was 1975 and Blanchard had recently befriended a couple of other New Orleans teen-agers--Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis. Blanchard, raised in the city's suburbs, inherited his musical leaning from his father, an insurance company employee with a baritone voice and a serious passion for both opera and the prewar jazz of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Blanchard and the Marsalis brothers, on the other hand, worshiped newer idols.

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