Rant ‘N’ Roll: The Man

Musikfest Café, Bethlehem, PA—He came out of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1980 as part of a duo with Donald Harrison, two young lions harkening back to bop as part of a “New Traditionalist” movement in 1984 with their New York Second Line album. 31 albums later, I can’t think of another jazzman more exciting to see than 52-year-old New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

Put it this way…

If you were hip to jazz and living in Chicago in the 1920s, you’d have heard word that King Oliver had this young kid from New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, who hit so many high C notes, he done bust his lip. But in The Roaring Twenties and beyond, he was the man to see.

In the 1930s, Lester Young was the man to see. He blew a sax so sweet and soulful, you could cry. The musical love he made on the bandstand with Billie Holiday has never been equaled.

In the 1940s, Charlie “Bird” Parker changed the world.

In the 1950s, Miles Davis was still in the tradition before he went musically crazy.

In the 1960s, John Coltrane forever changed our expectations of what one could even expect from a saxophone.

In the 1970s, my cousin Rich tells me stories of following trumpeter Freddie Hubbard around New York City. Hubbard might have diluted his music on record upon signing to CTI but live, he was still a monster.

In the 1980s, Wynton Marsalis was the epitome of jazz improvisation…and still is, depending upon who you talk to.

In the 1990s, Terence Blanchard started his dominance and it has yet to abate. This is no junkie on the nod as, unfortunately, so many of our jazz heroes were. Stone cold sober, he’s an educator, Hollywood movie soundtrack specialist, composer, arranger and bandleader. Seeing him blow, I can envision what it must have been like to have seen the tragic Clifford Brown, who might have gone on to be the best of them all, had he not perished in a car crash at the insanely young age of 25.

So as I sat swooning at my table close to the stage at the beautiful Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, PA, totally in awe of The Man, I couldn’t help but feel the ghosts of trumpets past as Blanchard epitomized everything good and right about the improvisatory arts. His was a commanding presence. His solos were dramatic, kinetic moments of exquisite delights as his unbelievable band provided the kind of support that had each individual musician vamping along behind him doing their own thing in a spiraling essence of emotional release yet staying true to the chord changes. This is a band that could stop on a dime. And similar to how super-bassist Stanley Clarke blew into town earlier in the year with two teenagers as his band, Blanchard took the opportunity to present a younger generation of master musicians who, I dare say, will, indeed, be jazz stars each heading up their own bands long after I’m dust. (They already have their own albums out.)

The material consisted of his originals from last year’s Magnetic. Time signatures shifted and keys flew up or down. To say it was challenging material for any sideman to conquer is an understatement. Thelonious Monk used to have a problem with band members who complained that his material was just too damn hard to master. Blanchard’s young men not only mastered it, they coasted atop it, adding their own improv as The Man stood there practically glowering at the audience. These future stars on sax (Brice Winston), piano (Fabian Almazan), drums (Jimmy Macbride) and bass (Joshua Crumbly) will invariably all get their due in time. Right now, though, it is time to praise this stalwart of jazz hysteria, Mr. Blanchard. There just ain’t no one else in his league in 2014. Period.

Opening the night was the propulsive Easton (PA) Area Jazz Band who kicked it hard and impressive as hell, proving that when school systems get the proper monies for their music programs, students can reach for the stars. There is nothing more important.