The jazz trumpeter from New Orleans is talking about performing at this weekend's Essence Music Festival, his first appearance in town since the release of his excellent new album, Flow, on the legendary Blue Note label. He is a marquee name based on his high-profile soundtrack work for such popular films as Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Mo' Better Blues and Barbershop, but he is also an improviser who can hold a stadium audience spellbound with his trumpet pyrotechnics. He says he won't go out of his way to play familiar material, though. The only difference from a club date will be the size of the sound system.
On Flow, Blanchard easily mixes post-bop jazz styles with fusion, electronic and world music, a blend that sometimes shocks conventional jazz audiences. "I've noticed at some of the more traditional venues we play, when we start out people are a little taken aback at what we're doing," says Blanchard. "Not that we're doing anything drastic. It seems like a natural evolution of things to me, but I think they're expecting some of the things I've been doing on previous records like Let's Get Lost and The Billie Holiday Songbook. Those were big records, so I think sometimes people come to the shows expecting to hear that. But most people who come to see the band enjoy it at the end."
Blanchard's confidence may be partly fueled by his recent association with pianist Herbie Hancock, who is no stranger to playing for both hardcore jazz audiences on his own and with the Miles Davis group, and for pop audiences with his influential 1970s funk fusion outfit, the Headhunters. Hancock, Blanchard and another Davis alumnus, Wayne Shorter, have taught together for the past five years at the Thelonious Monk Institute at the University of Southern California. Blanchard and Hancock became close friends and Hancock produced Flow, his first production since 1987.
"His presence had an influence on us, whether it was just to make us comfortable doing what we're doing, or at certain times he brought new ideas to the session," says Blanchard of Hancock. "He's not the kind of guy to sit down and say, 'You need to do this or that.' He'll ask you questions. He'll make you think. Like on the tune 'Flow' itself, after we had done a couple of takes, he said, 'The way you guys are playing this thing it kind of sounds like three different movements,' and he heard those movements placed at different points in the record.
"Then he gave us great lessons on the tracks he played on because every take he recorded was drastically different. It was a great experience. Having Herbie there was amazing. We would record from 10 in the morning until 10 at night, then we'd hang until 2:30 in the morning talking to Herbie."
Blanchard's current sextet is discursive enough to satisfy the intense scrutiny of a club audience yet has a sound big and richly detailed enough to cast a spell over a stadium crowd. Saxophonist Brice Winston is constantly finding new ways to open the tenor's expressiveness and incorporates midi-based electronic effects into his sound. Pianist Aaron Parks is a brilliant young improviser who is certain to become a future star on his own. The rhythm section of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott has the ability to cover the full range of dynamics and is the key to the musical concept of Flow.
All of the musicians in the band contribute their own compositions, but the most original player of the unit is African guitarist Lionel Loueke, a genius instrumentalist and a former student of Blanchard's. Loueke does not strum or pick his guitar in a conventional style, but arrives at unusual chord voicings and arpeggiated runs through a unique fingering technique.
"He started out as a percussionist, and I guess he carried that concept over to playing the guitar," explains Blanchard. "He's playing all these traditional forms and incorporating them into a new style of music that is very unique, very powerful. When he had his audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute, Herbie and Wayne and myself knew immediately that he was something special."
Blanchard has learned what it takes, with a little help from Herbie Hancock, to get a band's sound -- its identity -- down on record. Flow is his best album, in part because he has become a mature player with a tone remarkable for its breadth and rounded sustain, but more importantly, Blanchard's leadership allows his sidemen to contribute fully to the project both as players and composers. Blanchard is the main voice, but he gets everything out of each player in the group for an ensemble sound that has staked out its own turf in jazz history.