Ottawa International Jazz Festival - Day Eight, June 30, 2005
Wamble's quartet has done some significant touring and it shows. Interaction between everyone is a given, but it's the relaxed and unforced way that the players find and latch onto musical suggestions coming from all directions that give the group its weight. Miles was especially impressive, able to shift gears from straight-ahead swing one moment to New Orleans second line rhythms the next. Hanley is unobtrusive but absolutely essential, and Dunlap is a strong soloist and sympathetic accompanist.
But it's Wamble who's centre stage and, with his acoustic guitar being a somewhat unusual lead instrument in an essentially jazz context, his ability to find inventive phrases to tie together the sometimes surprisingly difficult changes is remarkable. His slide work brings a roots element to the music, yet the melodic choices he makes are often pleasantly unpredictable. As a singer he's expressive but never melodramatic, with both his range and ability to sing more abstruse melodiesas he did on the set-closer (and Bluestate opener) "If I Live to See the Day"indicative of broader musical interests.
One of the most lamented changes in the jazz scene today is the gradual loss of the concept of jazz as an oral tradition, the idea of older, more experienced artists mentoring younger musicians by bringing them into their bands. Art Blakey did it; Miles Davis did it; and Gary Burton continues to do it. But with the marginalization of the club scene, where younger players could sit in and sometimes ultimately end up in the working group of a more established artist, the whole concept of paying dues has taken on a different meaning. An unfortunate byproduct of this change in the landscape of jazz is that more and more young artists are becoming leaders too early, releasing albums that may demonstrate promise but, at the end of the day, often lack the experience and maturity that would come about with the handing-down tradition that occurs through working with legacy artists.
One of the few established artists who still believes in the value of mentoring is trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who emerged as one of the young lions of the early '80s along with Wynton Marsalis. His group of young players included pianist Aaron Parkswhom Blanchard met when he was 15, recruited when he was 18, recording on Blanchard's Blue Note debut, Bounce, and is now barely into his 20s; African guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, whom Blanchard met when Loueke was a student at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies, and who also had a smaller role on Bounce; saxophonist Brice Winston, another young player who's been working with Blanchard for five years; and bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott, two relative newcomers to the scene. Blanchard has assembled arguably the finest group of his career. Certainly it's the most capable group to deal with Blanchard's ever-broadening interestshis latest album, Flow finds Blanchard moving ever further away from traditional post bop and into a more eclectic mix of African influences, electronics, and a more forward-looking approach.
From the first notes of the opening tune, "Transform"a piece by the group's previous drummer, Eric HarlandBlanchard's signature warm tone throughout the registers was instantly recognizable. The composition is one of those rare pieces that manages to be completely transcendent, lifting the emotions and yet somehow with a slight bittersweet quality. In the hands of Blanchard and the sextet it evoked the limitless possibilities of jazz as a cross-cultural melange, and the real power of music to transform and transcend all barriers.
While there wasn't a weak leak amongst all the players, Loueke was a clear highlight. Feeding his nylon-string guitar (and his voice) through all manner of electronic processing, he brought his folkloric African roots into the 21st century, blending them with a broad jazz vocabulary. Parks also demonstrated a breadth beyond his young years. And Blanchard was a generous leader, spreading the solo space, not to mention compositional duties, around democratically to every member of the sextet.
The mettle of a real leader is the ability to see potential, and Blanchard has not only seen it in his group of young players, he's seen it realized as well. This is a working band where interplay is a constant, energy and commitment a given. Any artist worth his or her weight has the humility to realize there is always more to learn; while one aspires to get to a certain place musically, it often turns out to be ultimately only a way station to yet another level. Blanchard has finally left behind the restricting trappings of earlier convention Although there's still a clear place for inescapable traditional roots in his music and his personal voice has always been distinctive, Blanchard has finally found a broader vision to pursue with this group.