[3 June 2005]
During the “Dixieland Revival” of the ‘50s, a generation of young jazz musicians embraced the New Orleans sound of the teens and ‘20s. These “Moldy Figs” rejected the music of their time for a period 30 years removed. They were throwbacks—far from the cutting edge and proud of it.
What does it say about today that cutting-edge recordings are only now catching up to music made 30 years ago?
The new Terence Blanchard disc on Blue Note, Flow, is a state-of-the-art collection from an exceptionally creative composer and trumpeter. And as fine as it is, there is something troubling in realizing that it showcases yet another relatively young jazz musician only now following the path blazed from 1968-75 by Miles Davis.
The year 1967 was a crucial juncture in jazz history. With Coltrane’s death, the natural cycle of development for jazz (toward harmonic and rhythmic freedom—from New Orleans, to swing, to bop, to free playing) seemed exhausted, both literally and symbolically. Miles Davis, always itchy to move forward, started to hear jazz as a vessel for rock energy and funk rhythms, and he quickly moved to incorporate electric instruments and ostinato vamps into his increasingly free playing. Despite the popularity of the first experiments in this direction (notably, Bitches Brew), Miles’s music became a fairly forbidding acid-funk that inspired few imitators at first. And while some musicians took the Davis cue as incitement to begin making a more accessible style of pop-jazz, the true gauntlet thrown down by Miles remained untouched for quite a while.
In fact, Miles’s “going fusion” in the ‘70s is one of jazz’s most oft-cited betrayals. Particularly among the Wynton Marsalis crowd (and spurred on by Wynton’s standard Stanley Crouch liner notes), Bitches Brew and its progeny were seen as the selling out of real jazz, and the back-to-bop young lion movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s was underpinned by the notion that it had to return to the golden age before1968 if it was to move forward at all.
Terence Blanchard followed Wynton into the trumpet chair of the Jazz Messengers and—also from New Orleans—started his career as just this kind of back-to-the-classics youngster. When his career led him to scoring films (largely for Spike Lee), his status as a “young fogey” recording for Sony Classical just deepened. For the first 20 years of his career as a jazz musician, he managed to keep things reasonably pre-1968.
With this release (and, to a lesser extent, 2003’s Bounce), Blanchard leaps into the future—which is to say, into the previously forbidden territory of funk rhythms and electric instruments circa 1975. And he does it with the sanction of none other than Herbie Hancock, on hand here as producer. It is an effort that treats jazz as a smorgasbord, sampling from Milesian vamps, African chants, fusiony synth washes, impressionistic ballads that are one Scandinavian pianist away from being on ECM, and even jagged melodies that flirt with a Klezmer groove. It would be wrong to call it a fusion record, and it’s a far cry from being as abrasive or as rocking as a ‘70s-vintage Davis effort. But it is an unmistakable part of the Blanchard’s generation’s investigation of the music they once shunned as a wrong turn.
The past few years have seen the release of electronic-funk-oriented discs by Wallace Roney, Roy Hargrove, Dave Douglas, Nicholas Peyton, and now Blanchard. (To our collective relief, Wynton remains “pure.”) Flow stands essentially in the middle of this group—neither as daring as Douglas’s efforts nor pop/hip-hop oriented like Hargrove’s. Blanchard wisely focuses nearly every song on the glorious sound he gets from his horn, allowing the trumpet-tenor melodies to soar over the guitars, synths, bass, and drums whenever possible. As a result, Flowis ultimately a more conservative disc than many, even as it reaches all over the musical world for its trappings.
Hancock plays acoustic piano on two tunes, and they serve as fine examples of Blanchard’s wise but cautious eclecticism. Both “Benny’s Tune” and “The Source” are lilting melodies that feature the West African guitarist Lionel Loueke wordlessly singing in unison with his acoustic guitar. Hancock weaves around these tunes effortlessly, and they come off as “beautiful music” of particularly smart kind. As a soloist, Hancock is the only other band member who can rival Blanchard’s melodic daring, making “The Source” the best thing on the record.
The other material showcases Blanchard’s singing tone and his ability to get this working band underneath him and really launching him in the air. On tunes like “Wandering Wonder”, the band is essentially a Messengers-styled post-bop outfit that can fly, only to have the tune occasionally undercut by guitar wahs or synth smears. When they’re flying, however, it is exceptional.
Apparently it was Hancock’s idea to take the title track, a meandering blues groove over one chord, and spread it in three pieces across the program. On this track the band is at its most intriguing and informal. It starts as a trio for bass (Derrick Hodge) and drums (Kendrick Scott) and an exceptionally loose Blanchard. It seems like the kind of thing Miles would have done in his later years had he had any chops left, and it’s exciting. The second piece of “Flow” turns into a nearly avant-garde guitar solo by Loueke as the rhythm splinters behind him and the electronics he uses in his sound muddy the water. The whole thing seems risky and interesting, which is precisely what is missing from too many pieces on this disc.
“Over There” sounds like something almost directly from a Pat Metheny Group record—a lovely folk melody played anthem-slow with wordless humming until the star (Blanchard, here) gets to build a soaring solo that explodes in a pentatonic money-shot before the tune returns. “Child’s Play” has a similar sound, with pianist Aaron Parks in the role of Lyle Mays. “Harvesting Dance” gets the juices flowing more aggressively, but it’s also somewhat down the middle—funky for a while but executed in such a way that you know, all along, that these guys have never played a note that sounded wrong.
In the end, that may be what most of these “post-fusion” records are missing: a sense that the rhythmic energy and excitement of the music might inspire some ecstatic rule-breaking. On, say, Agharta, Miles and his band sound as if they have been possessed by something beyond jazz. On Flow, the band’s sanity and control is never in doubt. They deliver a professional and eclectic mix of styles, and there is much to enjoy.
But revelation? No. Just Flow.