From Spike Lee to Cornel West: A Conversation with Terence Blanchard

Grammy Award-winner and revered jazz musician Terrence Blanchard is headed to UR’s Modlin Center this Friday. We had a chance to chat him up about his thoughts on improvisational music, his process for composing, and his latest musical endeavors.

Terence Blanchard is one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of his generation. Beginning his career with a tenure as trumpeter and musical director in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and with nearly 20 albums under his name and more than 50 movie scores to his credit – including a long and fruitful relationship with director Spike Lee – he has proven himself to be one of the most prolific performers and composers on the scene today.

Blanchard was awarded the Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for his 2007 release “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)”, a response to the devastation caused to his hometown of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. He is currently touring in support of his newest album, “Choices” released on Concord Jazz in August. “Choices” features Blanchard’s quintet joined by guitarist Lionel Loueke, vocalist Bilal, and writer, speaker, educator, and activist Dr. Cornel West. We recently spoke on the phone in advance of his quintet’s concert at the Modlin Center on Friday, October 30.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I’ve really enjoyed listening to your new record, and I’m looking forward to your performance next week. The articles that I have written for RVANews have dealt with composition and improvisation and the interesting relationship between the two and the implications on musical performances.

As a musician who has composed for movies and performed in situations where there is little or no collective improvisation and also as a composer, performer and bandleader of groups whose primary medium is spontaneous, conversational improvisation, I think you have a unique perspective on this relationship and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on the subject.

Well, at this point they all seem to be one musical experience to me. It’s really all about telling a story and in one particular area of the story, I give a person room to give their own slant on that story. For instance, I’m working on a piece now for a film where there’s a lot of rhythmic stuff – big drums and things like that – and even inside of that, while I’m composing, I still give indications for the percussionists to add their own little spice to whatever it is they’re going to play. Now that’s not a total improvised featured solo, but it is a way that they can bring a certain type of freedom and excitement to the music. And then there are going to be other spots where there are also elements of improvisation. 

I guess what it all boils down to for me is trying to mimic the human experience. Like when you’re having a conversation with somebody, all of a sudden there may be outbursts when one of you gets excited about a certain topic. Well, that same type of thing can happen musically and I think that those are the reasons why we respond to certain things in composition and improvisation because they mimic our own experiences in life.

Building on what you just mentioned about music telling stories, I’m curious about how your process for composing, and also for improvising with your band mates, is influenced by the subject matter; whether it’s a fictional story, a commentary on a historical or current event, or even just the theme of “Choices” as in your new record title. How directly does that external theme influence the actual music that you guys are making?

I think that it may have somewhat of an effect because it will set a tone, a scenario, will emit certain types of energy and when we start to play, I think we’re always influenced by those things. Like I said, the theme will set a tone and we’ll start to hear ideas within that tone and then start to develop them from there.

I think that probably the most interesting thing to me about your newest album, “Choices,” is the way you took your conversation with Dr. Cornel West that was recorded live in his office in Princeton and then took excerpts of that to create a metaphysical conversation by interspersing it with the music. And if I understand this correctly, you’ve continued this conversation in your live performances too, is that right?

Yeah, we have taken those fragments and sampled them, which I trigger during the live shows.

So, has your relationship and your understanding of the things that Dr. West said evolved in a similar way to how your relationship with the musical compositions – the melodies, chord progressions and forms – has evolved over the course of this tour?

Sure, I think that there are some words that he said that have started to really resonate with me. For instance he said, “Imitation is suicide. Emulation is a form of an adolescent mind.” That part of it really struck a chord with me the more and more I listen to it, because it started to really clarify my mind about the whole notion of being an artist, of developing. You know, one of the things that we call courage is really not courage at all in the sense of art, but it’s really a willingness to learn more and a failure to have the ability to constantly look back. So my relationship to that statement has been evolving over the course of time since we had that conversation.

I’d imagine that hearing him say, “Imitation is suicide” while you’re onstage playing would be inspirational, even convicting.

Oh yeah. I mean, it’s kind of hard hear that and then go back and try to play like Clifford Brown…

Yeah, exactly. And of course, two of the musicians that Dr. West mentions specifically, Beethoven and [John] Coltrane, both started as emulators, as we all do. And when they really began to pursue their own voice, it was a risky thing for them; they took a lot of heat for it from the critics.

Of course.

As a jazz musician, I think it’s so important to hear the melody of a tune in the back of my mind as I’m improvising so that I don’t approach the song as a generic set of chord changes. I’m curious, since you’re hearing Dr. West’s words either before or along with the heads of the tunes, do you perceive the words as a part of the musical composition, and do you and the other members of your band discuss how it could or should affect your group improvisations?

We’re not discussing it together too much anymore but when everybody first heard it we had a few conversations. All of these guys were influenced in their own way by Dr. West’s words and they all have a ritual that they go through to put them in the right space before a show. It’s pretty interesting but that’s a question that you would have to pose to the guys individually because sometimes I’m shocked by what they have to say. On the webisode Kendrick [Scott] talked about how he always writes on his drumsticks, “Lord, let me be an instrument of Thy peace.” I find it interesting because I always knew he was doing something but I found that out while watching the webisode.

I mean everybody has their own little thing; that’s the thing about these guys. I mean, Fabian Almazan [the pianist of the group] is not the kind of a guy who just comes up, sits down and says, “OK, what key do you want to play this tune in.” He’s really thinking of the type of expression, of the type of statement that he’s trying to make.

So, I’ve read in a few interviews about how your recent tour with Herbie Hancock was really inspirational. Specifically you mention how in spite of playing the same tunes every night, Herbie was able to approach them in a fresh way and was so open to what the other musicians were doing. 

What I found really interesting about that is that here you have a giant like Herbie Hancock and one can draw the line directly from Bird [Charlie Parker] working with Miles [Davis] when Miles was much younger and then Miles working with Herbie when Herbie was much younger than himself. Now you have Herbie working with you and then you working with your band, which is comprised of mostly younger guys. Throughout this lineage, the older musicians were intentionally surrounding themselves by younger musicians who think outside of the box and challenge them and at the same time the older guys are mentoring the younger ones. I know that you have been a teacher to your band mates before they joined your band so can you talk about how this plays itself out within your band?

Well, it works in the way that I’ve always envisioned a jazz band working, in that it’s my name on the marquee but it’s really input from all of these guys that creates the sound. I give them a lot of freedom, you know. I’ve always taken the position that I don’t know it all and that I’m open to see what other people’s opinions are about a certain musical idea. 

So with this particular band, although one person may create a tune, by the time we’re done with it, everyone has had some kind of input. You know, Wayne Shorter once said something in an interview that was very interesting. He talked about how all of this, all these records and all these concerts were just one continuous live performance broken into segments, which gives evidence of how life is everlasting. And I agree with that.

The Terence Blanchard Quintet will perform at University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts on Friday, October 30th at 7:30pm. For more information on the performance or to buy tickets, stop by the Modlin Center website.

(Photo courtesy of Jenny Bagert)

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