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Terence Blanchard at Tanglewood Jazz Fest: A Requiem for Katrina

R.J. DeLuke By

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While some compositions evoked an eerie gloom, the music maintained an inspiring quality, ultimately uplifting.
Tanglewood Jazz Festival
Tanglewood
Lennox, Massachusetts
August 31, 2008

Hurricane Gustav was one day away from striking the Gulf Coast, with warnings that it might be worse than the devastating hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005 as Terence Blanchard took his quintet to the stage at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend 2008 at the storied performance facility in Lenox, Massachusetts. He admitted his heart had been heavy on that night and asked the audience to say a prayer for the people in the Crescent City where he was born and the surrounding areas.

He was there to perform music from his CD, A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina (Angel, 2007), which won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album at the 50th annual Grammy Awards in February. The concert, which closed out the festival, was a triumph.

The band was backed by a 34-piece orchestra, and what ensued was a thoroughly touching and emotional rendition of compositions inspired by the tragic events of Katrina. Blanchard coordinated the music with the story of Hurricane Katrina that forced him and thousands of others to depart from their homes. The irony of the timing of the concert, with another storm bearing down on New Orleans, was not lost on the gathering. And from the opening strains of “Levees,” the audience was taken on a rollercoaster of emotions laid bare by compelling music and great musicians. While some compositions evoked an eerie gloom, the music maintained an inspiring quality, ultimately uplifting.

“Levees,” said Blanchard, was inspired by the moving story of a 73-year-old man trapped on a rooftop with two elderly women during Katrina. It began with a sad lament by the orchestra, over which Blanchard came in as a plaintiff voice, moaning with a beautiful deep and solemn tone. His thoughtful phrasing and long expressive notes evoked wonder, almost if asking—Why? Where will it end? Saxophonist Brice Winston was equally passionate, though with more flurries of notes. He’s shown his outstanding prowess on his instrument during his tenure with the Blanchard unit.

All the band members contributed to the compositions, and pianist Fabian Almazan’s “Wading Through” was also bittersweet, but intense in its beauty. A floating piano line gave way eventually to the emotional orchestral rendering and more moving expression by the quintet.

Kendrick Scott’s drums, on all the selections, were vital to the sound, delicate when necessary and ominous, threatening, aggressive, when called upon. Once, he evoked the menacing sound of the storm using mallets across, around and through the drum kit. At all times, his multiple—and musical—rhythms were essential underpinnings for the moods of the music. He’s one of the music’s great young drummers and a perfect fit for the many intricacies of the compositions.

On “In Time of Need,“ Blanchard harmonized his trumpet over a wordless vocal (via some electronic apparatus) to haunting effect. Winston (who penned the composition) started his solo as a slow, searching walk before picking up with speed and blazing intensity. When Blanchard returned for more heartfelt blowing, he altered from bending and blowing into the floorboards, like Miles, to pointing skyward and braying toward the heavens, like Gabriel. The visual effect was significant and suited the fury of the music.

Blanchard explained his composition “The Water” came in part from his remembrance, and fear, of Hurricane Betsy that passed by New Orleans in 1965 when he was a child. (Seventy-five were left dead in Florida and Louisiana as a result). It made him wonder about the children during Katrina. As the music started, the opening was fearful, with foreboding bursts from the orchestra before more dramatic runs from Blanchard’s horn.

The musicians ran though all the music of A Tale of God’s Will and made it come alive in finer fashion that the recording, which is usually the case for great music made by great musicians.

Afterward, New Orleans was spared a horrific repeat of events when Gustav came and went. But struggles there continue. The response to the 2005 events is still inadequate, if you ask those who lived—or lived—there.

But the music of Blanchard tells a story that was felt, as well as heard at Tanglewood. Palpable. It was impassioned, sad, beautiful, frightening, questioning. Yet overall resilient.

Let it be so in the Crescent City.

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