Jazz history isn't exactly littered with great albums featuring string orchestras. There have been a fewtenor saxophonist Stan Getz's Focus (Verve, 1961) and British reed player Tim Garland's If The Sea Replied (Sirocco, 2005) are both masterpieces, but precious few others were recorded in the 44 years which separate them. All too often, string orchestras seem either to cramp an improvising musician's style or deliver a truck load of sound and fury signifying very little, or both.
New Orleans' trumpeter Terence Blanchard's A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina) is one of the genre's infrequent successes. A majestic and emotionally-charged disc, it employs the sonic grandeur of the 40-piece Northwest Sinfonia to convey the magnitude of the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans in 2005, without at any time compromising the fundamental jazz character of the music. And it does so without bombast or overstatement, its layered and nuanced character avoiding literal evocations of raging wind and water, and suggesting instead measured grief and a quiet determination to rebuild and move on.
The genesis of the disc was director Spike Lee's HBO documentary When The Levees Broke. Lee asked Blanchard, a regular collaborator, to provide music for the film, which also included footage of Blanchard's mother returning for the first time to her ruined home. Lee's budget didn't run to orchestration, but Blanchard was subsequently able to persuade Blue Note to fund a re-recording of the material, with the Northwest Sinfonia featured throughout.
The nucleus of the album consists of four compositions originally recorded for Lee's film. Melodically and structurally, the tunes are the sameeach with its root, consciously or otherwise, in George Gershwin's "Ain't Necessarily So"but the arrangements give each reading a strikingly different feel. The blues-drenched "Levees" evokes the quiet before the storm, an apparent stillness carrying an undertone of incipient menace; "Wading Through" and "The Water" convey the sheer, biblical vastness of the flood; "Funeral Dirge," arranged as a slow march, with metronomic snare drum rolls to the fore, is a salute to the many people who died. Blanchard's no-frills, in-the-tradition, testifying trumpet, which is the main solo voice, rings out powerfully and affectingly throughout. He blows like a blues player sings, by turns angry, plaintive, stoic, hopeful and elegiacand, almost tangibly, always from the heart.
An ambitious and brilliantly executed album, and perhaps Blanchard's most fully rounded artistic statement to date.
Personnel: Terence Blanchard: trumpet; Brice Winston: tenor and soprano saxophones; Aaron Parks: piano; Derrick Hodge: acoustic and electric basses; Kendrick Scott: drums, percussion; Zach Harmon: tabla, happy apple; The Northwest Sinfonia, conducted by Terence Blanchard; Simon James: Northwest Sinfonia contractor and concertmaster.