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Jazz Goes to the Movies: Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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Spike Lee's movies are about human stories and, as Nat Hentoff has pointed out, so is jazz. Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard therefore make an unbeatable team.
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Verizon Hall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
April 19, 2008

This event, unusual for the Mellon Jazz Series at the Kimmel Center, brought together Terence Blanchard and his quintet, several crossover (jazz and pops) vocalists, and a fine pickup orchestra conducted by Michael Pedicin performing Blanchard's music from eight Spike Lee films, with still slides from the movies prominently projected on an overhead screen. Spike Lee himself spoke at the beginning and end of the concert. Lee's natural, easygoing charisma inspired the musicians throughout this lively, at times even passionate, musical evening. The concert is produced a few times each year at various venues internationally.

Musical excerpts from the following movies were performed: Bamboozled, Inside Man, Clockers, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, 25th Hour, Mo' Better Blues, and When the Levees Broke.

While somewhat awkward as an emcee, Terence Blanchard shone on trumpet. His playing was deeply introspective and passionately expressive. His compositions were obviously intended as "background music" for movies, not coherent jazz pieces as such, but they achieved a jazz "feel," and were of the highest quality for the cinema, unlike the typical cliches used to accompany the dramatic unfolding of the scenes. Mr. Blanchard is second to none as a writer of film scores. It is remarkable that he is able to sustain a dual career as a top-flight film composer and a major jazz trumpet player-group leader. Moreover, both his compositions and his trumpet playing are true to his New Orleans roots while incorporating modern and contemporary elements.

The vocalists were extraordinary in voice and interpretation. The redoubtable Patti Austin did a beautiful rendition of "Shadowland" from the film Bamboozled. Musiq Soulchild, a Philly native who doubles as a "rapper," showed his capacity for jazz in a song from Clockers entitled "People in Search of a Life." Raul Midon milked every gospel note of "It's Been a Long Time Comin'" from Malcolm X. Music from Jungle Fever had liberal helpings of jazz improvisation, and Midon vocalized a jazz trumpet sound with uncanny realism as he traded eights with Blanchard.

The orchestra and the quintet performed more than serviceably. Local flare was provided by Blanchard's bassist Derrick Hodge, who has Philly roots, and conductor Michael Pedicin, whom many Philadelphians know from his local saxophone performances. Pedicin has also toured on sax worldwide with top musicians such as Pat Martino and Dave Brubeck. A consummate instrumentalist as well as conductor, he craftily pulled the whole evening together, probably without much rehearsal time.

The evening concluded with excerpts from When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee's "slice of life" testimonial to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here the visuals drew my attention more than the music. The still shots captured the profound damage, neglect, endless loss and grief that occurred in New Orleans after the hurricane ripped apart the Crescent City. Lee pulled no punches in graphically showing the human costs. And he added a loving touch by posing some of the beautiful people of that city holding and gazing through picture frames of the sort one sees in art museums, as if to say, "never forget them- they are you."

Spike Lee's movies are about human stories and, as Nat Hentoff has pointed out, so is jazz. Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard therefore make an unbeatable team, for which this concert served as ample evidence.

The evening was tarnished, however, by what I felt was an inappropriate pitch for presidential candidate Barack Obama, just three days prior to the Pennsylvania primaries. It is ugly enough when a musician makes an impromptu plug for a candidate at a performance, but to flash a large-screen, souped- up image of Obama for nearly fifteen minutes, to have several of the performers wear Obama tee-shirts (thankfully only at the conclusion), and for Blanchard to suggest that the audience vote for Obama, seems to me ludicrous. It reminded me unfortunately of the power "cults of personality" that predominate in totalitarian countries.

Isn't a performer entitled to endorse a candidate? Of course. The question is: when and where? Jazz (and other forms of entertainment) are intended to bring people together, not create divisions. Concerts are not the place to take political positions. Polemics embarrass the members of the audience who come for the entertainment and may or may not agree with the position taken. I am frankly surprised that the Kimmel Center and the Citibank-Mellon sponsors allowed this political agenda to enter into one of their fine concerts.


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