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An Arranged Marriage : Blanchard Weds His Spin on Film Scores With Emotional, Technically Astute Trumpet Playing


Terence Blanchard's latest CD marries the dual directions of his career. "Jazz in Film" is the musician's arrangements of jazz-influenced scores from movies, including "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Chinatown," "Taxi Driver" and "Man With the Golden Arm." Each of the nine pieces for jazz combo and orchestra features Blanchard's technically astute, emotionally powerful trumpet playing.

Blanchard--who brings his quintet to the Orange County Performing Arts Center for four shows Friday and Saturday--is best known as a New Orleans-born trumpeter who came out of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to lead one of the genre's most influential combos. The 37-year-old has also earned a reputation as a composer for film and television, most notably for director Spike Lee.

Blanchard contributed music to Lee's "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues" (for which he coached actor Denzel Washington in the art of trumpet playing). He composed the scores for Lee's "Jungle Fever," "Malcolm X," "Clockers" and the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Four Little Girls." Blanchard also wrote music for the full-length feature "Eve's Bayou" and for a number of made-for-television movies, including NBC's "An American Tempest," which aired in December.

Putting together the program for "Jazz in Film" (Sony Classical) was an education, Blanchard said recently from New York, where he and his quintet were performing at the swank Iridium nightclub.

"We went through a ton of records," he said. "We tried to find the most influential pieces, things that have changed the course of filmmaking. Some pieces--like [Andre] Previn's score to 'The Subterraneans' and Quincy Jones' music from 'The Pawnbroker'--were included because they're so beautiful."

Blanchard's aim was not to re-create the music, but to show his appreciation for his predecessors.

In [Duke Ellington's] 'Anatomy of a Murder,' I didn't change anything but did add that shout-chorus interlude. The harmonic progression was changed in some of the others. In 'Man With the Golden Arm,' we played it in a more straight-ahead style, while the original had more of a Latin feel."

Blanchard said he expects the exercise to have a positive effect on his film composing.

"You can't visit the music of a great composer without it leaving a lasting impression," he said. "[Bernard Hermann's] music to 'Taxi Driver' still boggles my mind."

Hermann's much-hailed score to the 1975 Martin Scorsese movie is the most recent piece of music on the CD collection, other than Blanchard's music from Lee's 1995 "Clockers." That, Blanchard said, is a reflection on the current state of film music.

"There's a certain amount of validity to the idea that they aren't writing film music like they used to," he said. "With few exceptions, most directors these days think that themes and melody will distract viewers from [what's] on screen. Spike is the opposite. He likes strong themes and melodies."

"Jazz in Film" finds Blanchard leading a star-laden ensemble that includes saxophonist Joe Henderson, longtime associate and New Orleans crony Donald Harrison on saxophone, trombonist Steve Turre and, in one of his last recorded performances, pianist Kenny Kirkland, who died this year at age 43.

"[Kirkland] was a great person, a very nice guy, very sweet and fun, a great personality; that's the Kenny I remember. He was also a great musician and a genius at the keyboard."

Blanchard's career has developed in the shadow of another New Orleans product, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whom he has known since age 12. Blanchard, four months younger than Marsalis, followed Marsalis as the trumpeter in Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1982. Blanchard's work has often been compared to that of the more visible Marsalis. Still, said Blanchard (whom some critics have said plays with more honesty and expression than Marsalis), there's never been a feeling of sour grapes when it comes to Marsalis' success.

"Even if we weren't childhood buddies, at the time he was gaining all that success I was happy to see him get it, to see a young black male receiving all that attention. [Trumpeter] Clifford Brown didn't get it. [Trumpeter] Woody Shaw didn't get it. Also, it's been a great learning experience for me to watch him go through all of it, to sit back and observe how he's handled it."

Blanchard said he has mixed feelings about the role of Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the general rise of jazz as a repertory craft.

"On one hand, it's extremely important to have jazz recognized as a serious art form and to have the legacy in that institution. On the other hand, the jazz community has to recognize that [jazz repertory] isn't the be-all and end-all of the music. It's great what Lincoln Center is doing for the music, but we have to remember that jazz is all about going forward and developing the music.

"Young artists with new ideas have to have a place to develop their own styles. And I think Wynton would agree."

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