Being from New Orleans is a burden for a jazz musician. There is a burden of history, particularly if you play the trumpet—the weight of Louis “Pops” Armstrong hanging over you and constantly demanding whether you measure up or even dare to try. And now there is the weight of New Orleans’s greatly magnified misery after natural disaster. Before Katrina, the blues was a legitimate act of joy in the face of struggle. Now?
If America is to expect a New Orleans musician to respond, then looking to Terence Blanchard makes sense. More than Wynton Marsalis, whose motives and artistry have been buried under the controversy he has courted as an arbiter of jazz legitimacy, Blanchard has charted a course of catholic taste and rich ambition. He has played hard bop without sentiment, he has worked with fusion and world music, and he has written a variety of orchestral music—most notably for a series of films directed by Spike Lee. Mustering an original and eloquent response to Katrina would seem to require the last measure of Blanchard’s talent and experience.
A Tale of God’s Will is that response, and it arrives powerfully—drenched in palpable sorrow. It is primarily a vehicle for Blanchard’s solo trumpet playing, supported by his quintet and his skilled writing for strings. But it is a difficult record to dissect—indeed, one that a listener does not want to pull apart too much.
It makes sense that God’s Will tells a story, somewhat like a movie, as it was inspired in part by Blanchard’s music for the Spike Lee documentary about Katrina, When the Levees Broke. (Blanchard was personally featured in one of the film’s most moving sequences, accompanying his mother as she saw her destroyed home for the first time.) Moving from scene to scene and color to color, the music still tells a single story. It opens with a danceable joy—polyrhythmic N’awlins groove and bottom leading to a chant: “This is a tale of God’s will,” repeated while Blanchard and bassist Derrick Hodge improvise with blues dash in the margins. This lyrical message, the title of the record, after all, seems both ironic and a statement of surviving faith. The hurricane, after all, came from beyond us—but the tragedy was in our lives and in how we reacted (or failed to react). All of the music that follows “Ghost of Congo Square” suggests that this is a tale of God’s will… plus.
“Levees” begins with Blanchard’s strings—unlike typical jazzman strings, certainly. This is string writing in neither a faux-jazz or faux-classical vein but rather writing that seems organic and essential to Blanchard’s voice in expressing this emotion, strings that are not reaching for false “seriousness” or over-sweetness. That alone is a terrific accomplishment. Blanchard then enters, not as a jazzman playing over strings but as an integrated voice. Once the rhythm section joins, the track may sound more like “jazz”, but the overall effect remains one of sculpted lament, with the strings continuing to comment on the solo through its climax, then restating the original theme as prelude a long out-chorus on which groups play with equal authority.
“Wading Through” is a beautiful feature for the quintet’s pianist, Aaron Parks. Dramatic music that takes a tip from the ballad writing of Ahmad Jamal and also brings to mind Herbie Hancock’s more cinematic writing, this track is unafraid of being sonically gorgeous. Lush without being saccharine, it is simply artful. The next tune, “Ashe”, was written by Park, and it balances the various elements of the project brilliantly, with a string introduction that sets off a duet between trumpet and piano. The brief improvised piano solo suggest the kind of work Keith Jarrett might have done with strings if his megalomania had not prevented him from ever courting the joys of simplicity. Blanchard’s solo here is even more liquid and original, with the trumpeter squeezing out notes that sound less like brass than like something that might melt in the New Orleans heat. Each trumpet solo on this record balanced control with raw emotion.
If Tale of God’s Will had done nothing but continue in this productive vein, it would have been a remarkable, excellent album. But its reach is actually more wide and ambitious. “In Time of Need” (written by saxophone player Brice Winston) incorporates hand percussion and wordless vocals with the band and the strings—making the kind of seamless modern music that might be associated with Pat Metheny, but without Metheny’s sometime electronic shimmer of artificiality. “The Water” is a concerto for dark-swaying strings and Blanchard at his bent-note darkest, while “Mantra” (written by drummer Kendrick Scott) begins with tablas and ringing electric bass from Derrick Hodge and develops into complex arrangement for strings and quintet in full blossom.
Taken as a whole, two elements of this recording stand out. First, Blanchard and his group play selflessly, without reaching for flashy effects or long solos. Everything about this record is about bringing the compositions to full fruition, and the improvisation always sounds integrated with the full purpose of the music. Second, every element of the record is incorporated into its theme. Even the tracks that are somewhat disparate (a swinging duet between bass and trumpet on “Ghost of Betsy” and a fragmentary tenor solo on “Ghost of 1927”, particularly) play as interludes that breathe life into the project between larger movements.
By the time you get to “Funeral Dirge”, there have certainly been flashes of light through the dark skies, but never so many as to blur the tenor of the tragedy. Blanchard and his talented group do what artists have done for so long—to channel real life into something more rarefied and permanent, a record of feeling that transcends the news and gets at the human truth of things. You can certainly listen to Tale of God’s Will with Katrina in mind, but it is equally fruitful to hear it as a contemporary essay in blues sensibility: sophisticated in the extreme and finally about a kind of triumph. The “God’s Will” of the title might be heard less as a comment on the hurricane or our terribly flawed emergency response than as a comment on our emotional response.
The final track, “Dear Mom”, is an explicit reference to Blanchard’s mother, whose lost home is so painfully experienced in Spike Lee’s documentary. But what we remember about that scene—and what we will remember about this music—is not the loss but Mr. Blanchard’s statement to his mom that “this is all stuff that can be rebuilt”. This seemed utterly absurd in the context of the film, so vast was the destruction. But it was said with the love and optimism of a son—God’s will to move forward. And, on this recording, it is said again with the love and optimism of a jazz musician who believes in the blues ethic of beauty and growth coming from pain.
A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) is certainly beautiful, and it seems to be a sign of growth in our music that improvisation, composed writing for string orchestra, and so many other elements should coalesce into something so consistently rewarding and original. Terence Blanchard’s promise as a total artist is brought to resounding fruition on this majestic recording.