*Terence Blanchard has enjoyed a tortuous and exciting musical career since debuting in 1982 as a member of the bands of two legends, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Classically trained and with jazz at heart, Blanchard has recorded as a soloist and leader of several groups, composed over 40 films (most often with director Spike Lee) and composed two operas, most recently Fire Shut Up In My Bones, the first opera of a African American composers in the history of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. For Blanchard, no endeavor is taken lightly. He makes them all count, including teaching at four colleges.
Blanchard is currently juggling scoring a film for an overseas project, completing a summer tour with Herbie Hancock and revamped presentations of “Fire…” at San Francisco’s John Anson Ford Theater on Tuesday, August 9, to delight audiences with music by his latest album “Absence” by Blue Note Records.
In this powerful project, Blanchard, keyboardist Fabian Almazan, guitarist Charles Altura, bassist David Ginyard and drummer Oscar Seaton collaborate with the equally progressive and unpredictable Turtle Island String Quartet on compositions by, and are inspired by, living legend Wayne Shorter.
In the following conversation, Blanchard opens up about his ongoing relationship with Shorter, the challenges that come with approaching his music, and what life was like for touring musicians post-COVID as he got back on stage.
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Galloway: What keeps motivating you to do so many projects at the same time – one on top of the other?
Blanchard: The IRS (big laughter) No… I don’t consider myself a saint. I just love music. The sky is the limit. I’ve just been on tour with Herbie Hancock in Europe all summer. Watching him at 82 kicking everyone’s ass at the bandstand – still searching and creative – is an example of what I’m talking about. He loves music and plays for people. That motivates me. Everything becomes a challenge and an adventure.
Galloway: Have you gotten to a point where you have to reject things?
Blanchard: It’s starting to happen like this. There are things I would like to do that I just can’t. But look… that’s a good problem.
Galloway: Do you think people appreciate experiencing live art more now than before the pandemic lockdowns?
Blanchard: Like everything else in the world, live music was in a state of limbo with everyone trying to catch up. It’s just a bizarre time. That was the cool thing about touring Europe because in every place we visited, while it was scary to be in close proximity to people again, it was also exciting because people are really coming out and making love music again wanted to see. I would say that world public social interaction and live music are much more appreciated now. After lockdown and dealing with this virus, people seem much more aware of their own mortality. The number of people who came up to us after the shows and said “thank you” with such intense sincerity spoke volumes. The sad thing is that as musicians we have lived in a bubble. We didn’t really have the after-show socialization that we used to have. The musicians were concerned for Herbie’s safety and Herbie’s concern for the safety of all of us. We were on a tour bus so the tour ends if one of us goes down.
Galloway: What about Wayne’s music made you dive into it?
Blanchard: Well, first of all it’s beautiful music of course… but beautiful in a different way. For me he is like the next great composer. He knows how to harmonize a simple melody so that it feels fresh. He doesn’t do anything where he writes dense harmonies…he’s just smart. Art Blakey used to tell us, “The easiest thing is to write some shit that no one can understand. Find out how you can connect with people and still have those variations where the music becomes your own.” That’s what Wayne does. He’s actually trying to touch you… to have an impact on your soul. And he does that by grabbing your attention with familiar tunes that just feel so different. A lot of it has to do with the way he structures the melodies and the way he uses harmonies. God bless him. He’s a real sweetheart.
Galloway: Do you see Wayne as someone who came out of the gate almost fully formed, or can you draw a growth arc?
Blanchard: Both. When I teach composition at school, I use Wayne as an example. I say, “Let’s go back to some of his earlier records,” and we can clearly see that that’s when he developed his ideas. When it comes to young composers, they often say that they suddenly want to try to be hip. But the melody is no longer recognizable afterwards. That gets away from the whole idea of what you’re trying to convey. It’s not about fooling the audience or proving to them that you’re doing something that complex. It’s the exact opposite. It’s about grabbing her hand and taking her on a journey. how do you do it your way Wayne is a master at that. Another thing Art used to tell us is, “You never want to be too hip… because two hips make an ass!” (big laughter)
Galloway: On the new album, one of the songs you wrote is titled “I Dare You”. Isn’t that a direct quote from something Wayne said about jazz?
Blanchard: Right. He said: “Jazz means: I dare you!”
Galloway: How did you approach this idea musically?
Blanchard: By letting my heart speak and not trying to steer it in a certain direction.
Galloway: I remember “The Elders” being the last track on side 1 of Weather Report’s Mr. Gone album and it was very ethereal. What did you hear in it?
Blanchard: My pianist Fabian Almazan wanted to do that and When It Was Now, things from Wayne’s later career. We love playing them live because they go somewhere different every night.
That was the beauty of making this record. Before the session we went to Wayne’s house and hung out with him. Well, I’ve been there before. But some of the guys in the band, as well as members of the Turtle Island String Quartet, didn’t have that. One of those things about Wayne is that once you meet Wayne you understand why his music sounds the way it sounds. It’s like meeting (Thelonious) Monk. Sometimes you can feel completely inadequate in your understanding of a great one. “Why can’t I write like that?” But as soon as you meet her, you’re like, “Oh, that’s why.” What you really want to make her feel is, “What is that, for me, a criterion that allows me to be different?”
So this record wasn’t just about playing his tunes. With Wayne, he wants to know what you have to say. You have to make a statement.
Galloway: Do you remember the first time you heard Wayne’s music?
Blanchard: I can’t remember the first Wayne tune I ever heard. But I remember playing one with Art Blakey called Witch Hunt. This melody blew my mind compositionally. Then I got the chance to meet Wayne while I was at an airport in Spain with Art. Art looks up and says “Ay Wayne” (in a perfect raspy voice imitation). Wayne turned and came over. We were shocked like, “Oh shit! What are we doing!?” But he was cool. He chatted with Art for a bit, then went about his business. But then I started working with him at Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz (now the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz) and really got to know him. every time i was around him i was just so inspired. the way he thinks about the world just brings something to your mind. wayne shorter is probably the purest of souls he is I have ever met on this planet.
Galloway: What qualities are evident in his music that you experience when you meet the man?
Blanchard: The true essence of honesty and purity… He is something else. You should hear Herbie talk about him. Back to my band members who met him, when we left they were all dazed…
And I’m going to share with you one of my experiences with Wayne. One of my daughters and I went over to have lunch or something. He was downstairs in his music room. He has sheet music in front of him. And he writes his opera from memory… with a pen. I sit and look at this like, “OK!”
Galloway: Wow… straight from the head to paper, written with emphasis with a pen.
Galloway: So what can we expect at Tuesday night’s performance?
Blanchard: First of all, I’m blessed to have a very talented band. All future-oriented musicians. Plus The Turtle Island String Quartet. They completely redefine what a string quartet is. I keep saying I’ll take a before and after picture of the audience when I introduce them. Audiences always give me a look beforehand, “Aw, here we go.” After they hear it, I’m like, “Uh-huh… I was trying to tell you!” People freak out about it.