Wednesday, November 17, 2021

'Absence' doesn't make the heart grow fonder: My second try to get with the 'new' Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard in full cry in return to the Kitchen

To honor jazz elder statesman Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard turns to his long-running E-Collective band and, more recently, the Turtle Island String Quartet on a tour that came to the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night.

As ever, Blanchard is relaxed and inviting in his commentary from the stage. His music also seemed to connect with most of the capacity audience in the first set of a two-night stand at the club. In his chat, he showed ample respect to his sidemen and veneration for Shorter, the veteran saxophonist-composer who is actively nearing 90. Credit to Blanchard for building on his local history of audience rapport, though it can't possibly go back as far as he said: the trumpeter couldn't have been with Art Blakey when he first played the Kitchen, which has been in business since 1994; the drummer died in 1990.

Blanchard is fresh enough creatively that "Absence," the recording project that he's now representing onstage, never collapses into a reflexive tribute mode. But the plugged-in sound of the band and the meandering oversaturation of the material didn't alter my skepticism about his recent art. I first waxed skeptical on this blog more than six years ago; I avoided revisiting that post until this morning, not wanting to direct my impressions of last night in advance of hearing what Blanchard is up to.

The major difference, besides some changes in the E-Collective personnel, is the addition of the Turtle Island  Quartet. That ensemble has been active for years in opening up new vistas for the combination of two violins, viola, and cello. They are folded into the complex tapestry of "Absence," though when the ensemble was going full force — in that piece and in Shorter's "The Elders" — you could hardly hear them Tuesday night.  The band was further unbalanced by the excessive force Oscar Seaton applied to the drum set. 

Founder-leader David Balakrishnan introduced an isolated feature for the innovative string quartet as E-Collective took a break. It was his composition "Second Wave," and it swung like mad — like nothing else in the set. I don't know if it's the pervasive effect of all his film scoring or his recent, generally well-received forays into opera, but there are signs Blanchard may have forgotten how to swing. Laying out some wholehearted ideas with plenty of brassy power isn't enough.

And his choice of electronic boosting of his trumpet made it sound as if two or three trumpets were playing at once, in perfect unison. What's the point of that? It may have the advantage of bringing the horn's projection up to the level of the two guitars and the drums, but it also grays out the beauty of the trumpet's tone. It's an old modification by now, thanks to Miles Davis' protracted late period. I'm not sure why plugged-in trumpet ever deserved imitation, certainly not for decades on end.

Let's give some kudos to the sidemen anyway (apart from Seaton): Taylor Eigsti is the relative newcomer, a pianistic prodigy who came into his own as a teenager. He sounded fully adaptable to the E-Collective manner, though fuller solo display was accorded wizardly guitarist Charles Altura, especially in his own "Dark Horse." Seaton's too-loud drumming couldn't ruin that showcase, though it marred it. David Ginyard was the stalwart electric bassist, who helped Blanchard draw deep on his funky side. 

That emerged forcefully on the set-closer, "Chaos," which lived up to its title as it went on; bass-drum depth charges were pervasive. With allusions to the racial violence that exploded last year (specified by Blanchard in his introduction), the piece showed the perils of importing social commentary into instrumental music. You are supposed to like it because it's on the right side of history. Its significance tends to found itself mostly on the message. (To head off any outburst of whataboutism, I will admit John Coltrane's "Alabama" as an admirable exception.) 

In the long run, Blanchard might abandon the editorializing and get back to making music of greater clarity, swing, nuance, and concentrated focus on the fine, personalized trumpet sound he is capable of. 

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

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