Trumpeter Terence Blanchard was complaining to Herbie Hancock one day, sharing his neuroses about performing, his feelings of inadequacy, when Hancock cut him off, telling Blanchard that, despite all his concerns, "It's all, in the end, about choices, in artistic creation as well as in life." Or at least that's the twice-told version, which Blanchard shared with the audience at the Jazz Kitchen during his early show Monday night. That lesson became the guiding principle of his new album, Choices
, which released yesterday; his band performs three iterations of the title track on the album, and Blanchard littered excerpts from a conversation with Cornell West throughout the album, giving his wordless jazz a specific political cast, making a choice to drastically alter to meaning of a particular song with West's observations about race in the age of Obama.
One of those versions of "Choices" opened the show. The backline emerged first - bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott and pianist Fabian Almazan - with Hodge opening the show solo, hushing the audience with lyrical, occasionally baroque phrasing, soon joined by Almazan's Keith Jarrett-esque piano and Scott's subtle stickless drum work, playing the tom with one hand, tapping a cymbal with the other. It all sounded like an ECM number and might have been the most weightless moment of the show.
Then came a recorded Cornell West excerpt - "For me, music is continuous with life" - which was a little disconcerting, a disembodied voice floating from the ether to tell us what to think about the music. After West's sample, Blanchard and saxophonist Walter Smith took the stage, and the energy level picked up. Blanchard's phrasing is somewhat ornate, busy but unhurried, adding up to a high-note climax that's never stratospheric. A later tune on which Blanchard employed an echo effect a la Miles Davis seemed to take from the best of both worlds - the static and the fluid - with Blanchard throwing off runs of notes but closing each run, necessarily, with one sustained note, giving his rhythms and phrasing some variety.
If Blanchard and friends can play in a featherweight ethereal territory - taking the chance that the audience will follow them there at the beginning of the show - they can also lay down a funk-influenced jazz, with Hodge and Scott letting really digging in, Scott showing that while he can play with brushes, he can also lay down a weighty beat (and can push Smith's sax into more energetic riffs on his last run through the changes).
Blanchard paid respect to Indianapolis's jazz history when he spoke to the crowd in the middle of the set, noting that Indianapolis has just as much of a jazz history as his hometown of New Orleans, and joking that he always has to practice before he plays here. He went on to tell a funny anecdote about playing in Detroit, a town with a similarly uncelebrated but deep jazz history, while with the Art Blakey band; a jazz aficionado grabbed him as he walked through the crowd towards the stage before the show, telling a young Blanchard that, "We're going to be listening to them things you're playing." Once the show began, Blanchard thought to himself that the fan would pick up on every misspoken phrase. It's a credit to the Indianapolis jazz community that someone like Blanchard tries to stay on his toes when performing here, and the salutary effect is that casual fans get to see a better-than-average show (not to mention a star of Blanchard's caliber in an intimate space like the Kitchen).