The Terence Blanchard Group
7:30 p.m. & 9:30 p.m. Fri., July 31
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9618; www.ogdenmuseum.org
Tickets $50 general admission, $40 students/seniors/Ogden members
The Terence Blanchard Group's forthcoming album, Choices (Concord Jazz), due Aug. 18, includes spoken-word segments by intellectual, activist and Princeton University religion professor Cornel West. But the album's meditations originated from spiritual conversations Blanchard had with a fellow musician: Herbie Hancock. Blanchard toured with Hancock in Europe for 10 weeks in the fall of 2008. A few exchanges with the practicing Buddhist struck a nerve with Blanchard.
"It came up in conversation several times," Blanchard says. "He said, 'There are no right or wrong choices when it comes to art. There are just choices.'"
In the followup to Grammy-winning A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), Blanchard decided to expand on the theme of choices and incorporate new ways of addressing them in his music. Blanchard recorded the album in New Orleans — a first for him — and then took the music to Princeton, where he played it for West and recorded a conversation about its themes. Segments of the dialogue are included as interludes on the record and other samples are mixed into some of the tracks. Blanchard and his group premiere the material in a concert at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art Friday.
Blanchard had been interested in West's philosophy and happened to meet him at the Essence Music Festival several years ago. Their recorded conversation found a quick and natural harmony of its own.
"I told him the concept, and he just started talking," Blanchard says. "He knocked it out of the park. He had a sense of where we were going, and he is well versed in the history of music, from jazz to classical. And he's a religion scholar."
West seems to empathize with musicians. On one of the tracks, he declares himself a "Jazzman in the world of ideas, a bluesman in the life of the mind." He also references Beethoven's view that language is inadequate to fully describe the universe beyond the experiences of finite beings.
Blanchard's talented ensemble includes Fabian Almazan (piano), Derrick Hodge (bass), Lionel Louke (guitar), Kendrick Scott (drums) and Walter Smith III (sax). R&B vocalist Bilal sings on two tracks and will be at the Ogden concert. On several of the new album's tracks ("Hacia del Aire," "Choices") Blanchard's elegant solos settle on a contemplative tone, at times cerebral where Tale of God's Will was wailing or impassioned. "A New World (Created Inside the Walls of the Imagination)" works off a New Orleans-influenced street beat written by Hodge as it works (in Blanchard's words) like a jazz funeral, going from dirge to catharsis.
Hurricane Katrina turned every New Orleanian into an advocate, Blanchard says. A Tale of God's Will made him into an ambassador, as fans and artists constantly want reports of rebuilding progress when he tours. On Choices, he becomes a bit of a philosopher as well. Blanchard still finds himself stunned at the human and political failures exposed by Katrina's aftermath. Choices questions human behavior and the potential for personal and social change.
"(West) asks, 'What kind of human being are you going to be?'" Blanchard says, referring to some of the spoken-word portions. "It's an issue of character. You can make a choice to do anything you want to do."