Terence Blanchard: Flow

Will Layman

Another former 'Young Lion' on trumpet nods toward Bitches Brew in his middle age. But the sound is as much Metheny as it is Miles, despite Herbie Hancock being the producer. Through it all, however, Blanchard plays singingly.

Terence Blanchard


Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2005-06-07
UK Release Date: 2005-06-06
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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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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