Absence is Terence Blanchard‘s homage to Wayne Shorter, and just like much of Shorter’s output from the last 25 years, it is almost too immaculate. One shouldn’t get the mistaken impression that the veteran trumpeter isn’t working hard or not pushing the musicians around him to raise the bar. Absence is a rather bold move, all things considered. In the press release, Blanchard mentions that Shorter’s definition of jazz is “I dare you”, and by assembling his band the E-Collective to record with the legendary Turtle Island Quartet, he seems to have out-dared his hero.
At the same time, Absence sounds too perfect to be the product of nine musicians struggling for their art. As far as complaints go, that’s a meager one. There is a great deal going on inside these 64 minutes of music, and that alone should be enough to provoke many revisits. The composition quality and all-around musicianship are foregone conclusions with Blanchard, who somehow manages not to spread himself thin when premiering an opera in New York while scoring multiple works for Spike Lee. To imagine Absence as another brick in that wall is rather staggering.
The E-Collective are not only made up of capable musicians but capable composers as well. Bassist David Ginyard penned the title track, “Envisioned Reflections”, and its 90-second introduction. Guitarist Charles Altura and Turtle Island Quartet violinist David Balakrishnan composed one track apiece, “Dark Horse” and “The Second Wave”, respectively. The only originals contributed by Blanchard are “I Dare You” and the introductory track. All remaining selections are Wayne Shorter covers, though the riffing over “The Elders” that got spliced and made into the reprise track “More Elders” could be perceived as a group improvisation composition. Stylistically, Absence is not as scattershot as it may seem on paper. For an album that combines a fusion jazz band with a classical string quartet to pay tribute to a post-bop legend whose career trajectory shoots from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to the present day, it’s remarkably consistent.
The Wayne Shorter covers include “When It Was Now”, “Diana”, “Fall”, and the aforementioned “The Elders” broken into two tracks — rather less obvious choices considering that Shorter will most likely go down in history as the guy who wrote “Footprints”. “Diana”, in particular, is a special choice considering it was originally recorded at a time when Shorter was more known for his contributions to Weather Report. The Turtle Island Quartet take over three minutes to set the scene before pianist Fabian Almazan’s brief cadenza introduces the rest of the band in all their muted grandeur. Blanchard expresses a fondness for “Fall”, a piece Shorter gave to the Miles Davis Quintet on Nefertiti because the melody is buried in the bass. In his arrangement, though, Blanchard assigns just as much melodic motif to the strings as he does to himself. To make sure everything is nice and flawless, this rendition of Weather Report’s “When It Was Now” will most likely age much better than the 1982 original.
The album’s originals are arguably more striking, at least up front. The Turtle Island Quartet’s introduction to “I Dare You” goes so far as to paraphrase Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Whether it’s meant to be cheeky or brave, it succeeds in snagging your attention. This syncopation feeds into the rhythms that drive the main piece, which leans heavily on the rock side of the jazz/rock scale. “Envisioned Reflections” moves from 20th-century chamber classical to fusion balladry without much force, leaving no room for solos (which appeared to be Ginyard’s intention).
“Absence”, which starts the album, appears to have it all — pensive piano with guitar trills, trumpet, and synthesizer together in unison melody, an interjection of strings during times both stormy and calm, and a solo from Blanchard that makes sure not to fly too close to the sun. Come to think of it, the title track makes for a good litmus test. Your opinion of the first seven minutes of the album should reflect your overall opinion of Absence.
It’s tempting to say that Absence is a successful crossover project, but that would make it sound like the music is bringing disparate components together. Instead, Absence feels natural through and through. The Turtle Island Quartet’s inclusion would never be mistaken for a sore thumb, and all of the tracks flow easily from one to the other despite being the result of five different composers. If we remove the word “crossover”, that leaves it a successful project, which sounds generic. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to think of it as an ever-flowing spring where the water remains refresh no matter how many times you return.