Onstage in Denver a few nights ago, trumpeter Terence Blanchard cut loose some opera moves on his bandmates.
The influence was subtle, but real. Blanchard’s debut foray into opera — “Champion,” a work scored for orchestra plus jazz trio — made its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in June. He was surprised when director James Robinson filled the stage with other action during one piece of music that was written for solo vocalist. “He had dancers, he had fighters in the ring. There was a whole other story being told while she was singing. It’s all about context, about how you want to tell your story, even when I’m playing with my band,” Blanchard says.
So when pianist Fabian Almazan followed Blanchard’s solo with one of his own at a recent show, the trumpeter had the idea to offer some counterpoint.
“I was playing this phrase in my solo, and when Fabian started his solo I kept playing a part of the phrase, to continue that particular statement in a different context. Those are things that I kind of take from the operatic world.”
It’s not surprising that Blanchard mixes and matches techniques from among his varied musical projects. Though he brings his talented quintet to Scullers Jazz Club on Friday, he is a prolific film composer as well, and is now branching into Broadway. He wrote music for a recent revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” as well as “The [expletive] With the Hat,” the 2011 show that earned a Tony nomination for best play.
As for learning from the approaches of his latest collaborators in the opera world, Blanchard says it’s an obvious move.
“Otherwise, it’s like being a baseball coach going into the NBA, coaching Michael Jordan and not listening to anything he had to say to me,” he quips.
Blanchard is long-established as Spike Lee’s composer of choice — his richly textured, emotionally expansive score for Lee’s HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina earned him a Grammy in 2007, his fourth. But he first gained attention in 1982 as the young trumpeter replacing Wynton Marsalis as featured soloist and musical director for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the long-running ensemble that has served as both keeper of the flame for mid-century hard bop and laboratory of emerging young talent.
His output as a bandleader is much admired, including the recently released album “Magnetic,” but Blanchard continues to seek new challenges through collaboration and sideman work. As with his composition duties for the stage, his work with luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Poncho Sanchez, and McCoy Tyner informs the sound of his own quintet.
“There’s always the challenge of being in somebody else’s musical world, of stepping outside of myself,” Blanchard reflects. “In my group we’re trying to broaden the scope of what it is that we do. It’s about how we’re trying to bring in all the influences of what we’ve listened to into our world. The statement we’re trying to make here is that everything is up for grabs.”
“Magnetic” mainly roams the moody territory of post-bop, though the atmosphere heats up on “Don’t Run” and splits into refracted introspection for “Hallucinations.” The record chiefly features his working quintet, though guests Ron Carter, Ravi Coltrane, and Lionel Loueke make key appearances.
Saxophonist Brice Winston, who was played with Blanchard for nearly 14 years, says the bandleader only recruits musicians who want to express a distinct musical personality within the group context. (In addition to Blanchard, Almazan, and Winston, the group includes bassist Joshua Crumbly and drummer Kendrick Scott.)
“For me, the biggest thing to take from Terence in terms of how he leads a band is his ability to let go, and hire musicians who are conscious and thinking and let them do what they do and be who they are,” Winston says. “He’s not going to hire musicians and tell them what he wants them to sound like. He wants you to find your voice inside of the environment he’s created.”
Taking a cue from Blakey, Blanchard encourages his band members to compose their own songs for the live set as the recording studio. He featured selections by each member of his quintet on the latest record.
“I use the band as a workshop for all of these guys to develop their craft,” he says.
Coming from a busy writer like Blanchard, the emphasis on compositional skills is deliberate. He says it’s through songwriting that a musician discovers his own voice, even within the free range of improvisation.
“When you just play every night and don’t really try to process it, you’re just playing and throwing it away, emotionally. But when you commit those ideas to paper,” he says, “you really have to see them for what they are.”
The “workshop” effect Blanchard is aiming for seems to be in effect. Winston says the quintet’s musical flexibility offers him a constant challenge.
“They’ll throw things my direction and it’s like: OK, deal with this,” he remarks. “It requires very quick thinking, very quick reflexes, and all of my musical knowledge.”