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He's got no choice

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard tackles contemporary issues in his music.

August 26, 2009|Steve Appleford

The Hollywood Bowl is empty when Terence Blanchard lifts his horn. It's a Wednesday afternoon, and this is the final rehearsal for a tribute concert to trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans set to take place later in the evening. Blanchard requires no audience for this moment. He just closes his eyes to blow.

The songs immediately in front of him and a 20-piece jazz orchestra are from a 1958 recording of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," one of the many Davis-Evans collaborations Blanchard studied obsessively as a young horn player in New Orleans. He's memorized every solo and improvisational nuance. And Blanchard will have to forget virtually all of it.

He has his own voice now, equally bold and tender. So Blanchard steps back from the microphone during "Summertime," blowing warm, flowing lines of spontaneous melody on his trumpet, ignoring the sheet music, lost in wherever the music takes him.

"That's what's interesting about being here," said Blanchard, 47, in his dressing room during a break. "We're paying homage to Miles by not doing what he did. It's being yourself."

The influence of those monumental Davis-Evans concept albums has come out in other ways in Blanchard's most recent work. His newest album is "Choices," released last week; the music is designed to engage with the issues of the time, featuring spoken-word commentary from Cornel West and some passionate vocals from soul singer Bilal.

It follows Blanchard's Grammy-winning "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)," a deeply felt 2007 meditation on the destruction of New Orleans, which was based on music Blanchard composed for director Spike Lee's HBO documentary, "When the Levees Broke."

These albums are not just collections of songs, but thematic pieces recorded around a central idea, inspired by hard times and social change.

"It's part of our generation's response," said Blanchard, who also appeared this year on the similarly conscious album "Watts," from drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. "We're all getting of the age where we've recorded a number of records, we've done a lot of musical things. And we're looking around and going, 'Wait a minute. We still can make a difference.' It's not like we're trying to be radical. We just see a need."

For "Choices," Blanchard enlisted the help of philosopher and Princeton University professor West, who sat with him for an interview on the subjects of art, spirituality, race and intelligence. The trumpeter, who was an instructor himself, teaching at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at USC, excerpted from that recording to create passages of commentary.

On the album opener, "Byus," West discusses wisdom and life "choices" to the anxious strumming of guitarist Lionel Loueke.

"I look at [West] as being one of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of our generation," said Blanchard, who has been a regular visitor to Los Angeles and will return with his band to perform Thursday at the Grammy Museum downtown. "He's also a very eloquent and passionate speaker. I thought his speaking style would really work well with music."

Blanchard wrote the title track -- which appears in three different versions on "Choices" -- while the rest of the songs were brought in by members of his Terence Blanchard Group. The album was recorded in New Orleans over four days in March at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which happens to be next door to the Confederate Museum.

"I'm sure they could feel the vibrations coming through the walls," he said with a smile.

In his dressing room, Blanchard's trumpet rests on the counter behind him, and he can hear Nicholas Payton rehearsing. Payton is another New Orleans trumpeter sharing the night's spotlight as a principal soloist, and he's blowing through songs from "Sketches of Spain" onstage.

In minutes, Blanchard is back on the Bowl stage for the final bit of rehearsal, standing between Payton and trumpeter Miles Evans, son of Gil. Together, they each take solos on a jaunty "I Don't Wanna Be Kissed (By Anyone but You)," a song from 1957's "Miles Ahead."

As the rehearsal ends, conductor Vince Mendoza makes a joke about taking the show on tour, and Evans walks over to congratulate Blanchard, saying "You sound great, man."

For a few moments behind the horn, he'd made the music his own.

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Terence Blanchard

Where: The Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Price: $20

Contact: (213) 765-6803

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