Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, flanked by pianist Fabian Almazan and saxophonist Walter Smith III.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, flanked by pianist Fabian Almazan and saxophonist Walter Smith III. David Tallacksen
When NPR Music and WBGO checked in on Terence Blanchard in February, he had just accepted a Grammy Award (for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo) and performed in the ceremony that night. Not long afterward, he introduced the new lineup of his quintet live at the Village Vanguard. We were there to record one of those sets, which is available for free download here.
That weeklong residency served as a warm-up, it turns out, to the making of a new recording. Following the group's Vanguard hit, Blanchard brought his musicians down to his hometown of New Orleans to make a forthcoming album titled Choices. That band returned to the scene of that recording — New Orleans' Ogden Museum of Southern Art — for the concert premiere of the new disc. And NPR Music and WBGO were on the scene, presenting the Terence Blanchard Group's concert as a live on-air broadcast and online video webcast.
Choices reflects on, as the press release states, "the choices we all make in life — both as a society and on a personal level." Those choices were expressed largely in sophisticated post-bop language, with twisted-line compositions occasionally hitting pockets of deep color. In making such an album, Blanchard called upon outspoken professor Cornel West to contribute spoken-word elements; West was not in attendance at the concert, but his recordings were, triggered by Blanchard's pedal board. The flexible voice of R&B singer Bilal was also summoned for the project; Bilal did appear on stage with tunes he wrote himself. And in Blanchard's quintet were longtime supporting cast members Derrick Hodge (bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums), as well as relative newcomers Fabian Almazan on piano and Walter Smith on tenor saxophone. All contributed songs to the new album.
Many know Blanchard's music from his film scores: Since the early 1990s, he's been Spike Lee's first-call composer of diagetic music. Blanchard's previous album, A Tale of God's Will, was based in part on his score to Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. But before he was a film composer, he was a rising star of jazz trumpet, playing in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and going on to record many albums under his own name. Now 47 and leading musicians nearly half his age, Blanchard has taken on the role of mentor himself.
In performing in New Orleans, Blanchard returned to both his home and his office at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he serves as artistic director. The venue where his quintet performed, the 19th-century Patrick F. Taylor Library at the Ogden Museum, is the only surviving building in the South designed by New Orleans native H.H. Richardson.