When Jazz Meets Hip-Hop
In their latest albums, composers Robert Glasper and Terence Blanchard explore new sounds and arrive at common musical ground.
In turn, Glasper applies his delicate touch on “Festival,” displaying incredible rhythmic agility through his use of silence and velocity, and alertness to the surrounding hyperactivity — attributes that would also enable an MC to crush an opponent in a battle rhyme.
One of Glasper’s early champions was trumpeter Terence Blanchard. In fact, it’s his voice we hear first on Doubled-Booked in “Intro,” in which Blanchard invites Glasper to perform at his newly opened jazz club. While Blanchard’s music doesn’t owe as much a debt to hip-hop as Glasper’s does, the trumpeter and composer’s latest disc, Choices (Concord), reveals some overlapping sensibilities. Hodge plays electric bass in Blanchard’s group and Glasper’s Experiment, and both Doubled-Booked and Choices feature Bilal. Interestingly, Bilal sings more persuasively on Blanchard’s bossa-nova-tinged “Journey” and gorgeous ballad, “When Will You Call,” exhibiting a streamlined maturity that wasn’t as evident on his 2001 debut disc, 1st Born Second (Interscope).
However, it’s a guest appearance by Dr. Cornel West, the noted scholar and author, that makes Choices more auspicious. The inauguration of Barack Obama may have provided the impetus for Choices, but it’s West’s philosophical ruminations that provide the guiding force. Mostly through interstitial vignettes, West waxes free-form about intellect versus wisdom (“Byus”), the significance of music on humanity (“Beethoven”), the self-reflective comparisons between philosophers and jazz artists (“Jazz Man in the World of Ideas”) and the promise of a new political era signaled by the arrival of Obama (“New Note”).
But as moving as West’s musings are, they sometimes sound awkward. Though his words may have inspired the compositions, the music doesn’t always sound as if was composed with spoken word in mind, which is interesting considering Blanchard’s long history of scoring Spike Lee’s films. He’s skillful at penning engaging music that underscores dialogue. When West’s appearances are fully incorporated in the music, as on the pensive titled-track, Crescent City-flavored “New World,” and the dreamy “Winding Roads,” the results are far more gripping and less tedious than the stand-alone interludes.
Those blemishes aside, Choices amounts to yet another testament to Blanchard’s gifts as a scintillating trumpeter, composer and bandleader. Taking cues from the legendary Art Blakey, with whom he once worked, Blanchard surrounds himself with stellar young musicians who perhaps help forge the sense of modernity. Also like Blakey, Blanchard encourages his band members to contribute compositions. With this slightly new lineup, Fabian Almazan takes over the piano chair left by Aaron Parks and saxophonist Walter Smith III replaces Brice Winston. Along with holdovers Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scot and guitarist Lionel Loueke, they stretch and shine on all of the compositions.
Yet, it’s Blanchard’s sterling trumpet improvisations, which at times soar to cloud-scraping heights, paired with his evocative compositions that distinguish the work. The gentle “D’s Choice,” with its magnetic melodicism, has the makings of a future jazz standard as well as providing a vehicle for more adventurous R&B singers, while the elegant “Robin’s Choice,” which finds Blanchard and Smith floating and dovetailing elegantly across a bed of skittering rhythms, gives evidence that Blanchard, too, has been checking out the stylistic synthesis of Glasper.
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root