Transcending tradition

Trumpeter follows his heart, plays what's inside

Jazz is a musical style based on a scholarly foundation, an art form built on an understanding of what came before it. As such, some jazz musicians face a dilemma, a balancing act in an effort to be true to the tradition and also to be an original.

Ideally, an artist will assimilate his or her influences, and then transcend the limitations that those influences would impose in order to create music that communicates on an emotional level yet still reflects its origins.

Such is the case of trumpeter Terence Blanchard, whose work is distinctive, evocative and yet clearly at home within the confines of what is commonly called jazz.

"I don't think about that kind of stuff any more," Blanchard says. "That's just too much stress on a musician to have to think about being original within the context of a certain tradition. Follow your heart, do what it is that you feel inside, and that will lead you in a direction that will help you develop an individual approach to performing music.

"It sounds like an easy thing," says Blanchard, who closes the Atlanta Jazz Festival with a Piedmont Park performance Monday night. "But it's very hard. You have to have enough courage to do something that probably will be very different from anything else that you hear. You have to trust yourself, and you can't play your audiences cheap. If you're honest about what you do, most people will feel that and understand that."

Speaking of tradition, Blanchard, 38, is a native of New Orleans, where he absorbed the influence of everyone from Louis Armstrong to Woody Shaw to Freddie Hubbard. Blanchard says the city's musical heritage taught him that music is constantly evolving. "That helped me a great deal in determining how I should approach this music. It's not about playing the tradition, it's about playing yourself, being who you are."

This philosophy has led Blanchard to the forefront of his chosen field. Down Beat magazine's 2000 reader's poll selected him as jazz artist of the year and trumpeter of the year. His CD, Wandering Moon, comprised of original compositions, won album of the year. The CD also earned a Grammy nomination for best instrumental jazz solo performance.

Blanchard's newest release, Let's Get Lost, hit the streets last week. In contrast to the originals of Wandering Moon, this one is a collection of songs by composer Jimmy McHugh. The name may not ring a bell, but his song titles no doubt will, among them "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "I'm in the Mood for Love," all written with lyricist Dorothy Fields.

The recording features guest vocalists Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. Wilson will perform with Blanchard for his Atlanta show.

"I was thinking about doing a standards record at some point in my life and I was looking at recording some of these tunes, and realized that they were done by one guy, so it made me want to investigate his music," Blanchard explains. He says he found an inspiring, natural quality in McHugh's songs, and also admired that his work has been recorded by performers from a wide range of musical styles.

Blanchard began studying piano at age 5 and trumpet at 14. He attended the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts as a teen and later Rutgers University. From 1982-86, he worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, succeeding Wynton Marsalis. The departing Marsalis, it seems, had told the renowned bandleader/drummer that Blanchard was a capable writer.

Blakey shocked Blanchard by telling him, "I've heard you've got a box of compositions, and we're going to play them all," the trumpeter recalls. "It was amazing that he wanted to do that, and I was very appreciative, because from that point on, he was really pushing us to write and arrange for the band, and I gained a lot of experience doing that."

After leaving the Jazz Messengers, Blanchard co-led a group with saxophonist Donald Harrison, also a New Orleans native. Soon after, he became involved in writing for films, and he has more than 30 film scores to his credit, including such Spike Lee films as Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and Bamboozled. His most recent film score work includes Original Sin, starring Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas, which is due in theaters this summer, and People I Know, starring Al Pacino.

Blanchard says the process of scoring films has helped him as a composer and performer as well. "When you perform, you're trying to present a show that has a logical beginning, middle and end," Blanchard explains. "It sounds very corny, but those basic elements are basic for a reason."

Terence Blanchard and his quintet perform with guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson Mon., May 28, at 8 p.m. in Piedmont Park as part of the Atlanta Jazz Festival. For more information, call 404-817-6851.

Take Five is a monthly column on jazz and related subjects. Venues, performers and other interested parties can e-mail or send news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.??