Blanchard Blows Up

The jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who has morphed into one of Hollywood’s busiest film composers, was tired and a bit distracted when The Observer met up with him early one afternoon recently at the Affinia Shelburne Hotel, where he’d been staying.

He was providing the “musical voice” of Louis the Alligator in Disney’s jazz-laden The Princess and the Frog, the Magic Kingdom’s first animated feature with a black heroine, Princess Tiana; it arrives in theaters in December.

And he was getting started on a score for George Lucas’ production of Red Tails, about the heroic African-American World War II fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, with a cast led by Terrence Howard and (uh-oh!) Cuba Gooding Jr.

In the meantime, he was awaiting his latest assignment from the director Spike Lee, with whom he has been working as a composer since 1991’s Jungle Fever, Mr. Lee’s movie about a doomed interracial romance.

What will the next project be? With the practiced air of someone who has been around Hollywood long enough to know better than to answer without the help of a studio flack, Mr. Blanchard would only say that Mr. Lee has “a few things up his sleeve.”

“We’re waiting for something to shake out,” he said cryptically, glancing at his BlackBerry.

But with all that going on, Mr. Blanchard had found the time to play a week at the Jazz Standard with his quintet in late July. It was a nice gig. But for a lot of jazz artists–turned–film composers, cashing large checks from Mr. Lee, Disney and the Star Wars creator would be enough. Why’s he doing it?

A heavy-set 47-year-old who wears a sizable pinky ring and has the expansive jowls one gets after decades of blowing vast amounts of air into a brass instrument, Mr. Blanchard finally perked up when he heard this question.

“It’s my passion, you know?” he said. “I’ve never lost sight of that. I love writing for film. It allows me to be a different person. I just like being creative, man. But playing was what I always wanted to do.

“I got a little upset years ago, man, when people started questioning my sincerity,” he said. “People would say like, ‘Isn’t he a film composer?’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. I’m on the road three-quarters of the year!’”

Mr. Blanchard’s priorities couldn’t have been clearer at the Jazz Standard, where he played songs from his new album, Choices, which hits shelves Aug. 18. On several tracks, the record features Cornel West, name-dropping and riffing like a prophetic beatnik intellectual, before the trumpeter and his band get down to business. Choices is a follow-up to the jazz musician’s excellent A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), which in turn picks up the theme of Mr. Blanchard’s score to Mr. Lee’s 2006 HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke, about the tragedy in the trumpeter’s hometown of New Orleans. (Mr. Blanchard lived in New York—Brooklyn Heights—for 15 years, but in 1995 he returned to New Orleans, where he lives now.)

This is another Terence Blanchard album that’s “about something.” But his intellectual guest star’s pontificating often seems like a mantle of seriousness that’s unnecessary, given the seriousness Mr. Blanchard is capable of achieving with his instrument.

 

Mr. Blanchard isn’t the critics’ favorite. That honor goes to Dave Douglas, an artier player whose penchant for eclectic projects—like Keystone, his band that has accompanied the silent films of Fatty Arbuckle—is more to their liking.

But no other trumpet player blows with as much power and soul as Mr. Blanchard. At the Jazz Standard, when he reached for a high note, he sometimes rose up on his toes as if he were trying to make a jump shot. Other times, he crouched over and aimed the bell of his horn at the floor. When he peeled up a particularly stormy lick, you almost expected him to levitate over the stage.

Mr. Blanchard’s tone has grown richer and more mysterious over the years. He has developed an arsenal of smears and glissandos that give his trumpeting a distinctly vocal quality. (In fact, he jokes that he’s a frustrated singer.) You can still hear the influence of Miles Davis, his boyhood idol. But Mr. Blanchard long ago became his own man.

Blanchard Blows Up