Blanchard Blows Up

It doesn’t hurt that he surrounds himself with some of the best young musicians on the scene, just as Miles once did. The trumpeter gives his sideman—saxophonist Walter Smith III, drummer Kendrick Scott, bassist Derrick Hodge and Fabian Almazan on piano—plenty of playing time; he also features their songs live and on his records.

“I figure if I got four great shooters in the band, let ’em shoot,” said Mr. Blanchard, employing an apt metaphor for a guy who plays his horn like a basketball star. “I don’t have to hog the ball. I think we’re a better team by doing that. Plus, I get a chance to vary my game and learn from them because they are pushing the envelope in ways I wouldn’t have thought of.”

Mr. Smith, who is in his 20s, returned the compliment, saying he hates stepping up to the mike after his boss is finished. “I try my hardest to never solo after him,” the saxophonist confessed in an email. “There’s only one tune that we do regularly that I solo after him on, and it’s one of my tunes. I’ve never hated something that I wrote so much.”

 

TO HEAR THE trumpeter tell it, his Hollywood career was almost accidental. He was hired by Mr. Lee’s father, the bassist-composer Bill Lee, to play trumpet on the soundtrack to the director’s Mo’ Better Blues, a 1990 film about the jazz world, starring Denzel Washington.

“We were taking a break. I was sitting at the piano, playing a tune that I was working on,” Mr. Blanchard said. “Spike came over and said, ‘What is that? I like that melody. Can I use it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”

The trumpeter wrote an arrangement. When he brought it to the studio, Mr. Lee’s father said, “It’s your tune. You conduct it.”

“I said, ‘Oh, shit,’” the trumpet player recalled. “So I got up on the podium and did that. When it was finished, Spike walked up to me and said, ‘You have a future in this business.’ We’ve been working together ever since. He laid down a mandate very early on: ‘I like strong melodies. I want people to be able to sing one of the themes as they are leaving the movie theater.’ I just had to learn to orchestrate them and fit them to the scenes.”

By contrast, Mr. Blanchard admitted that he agonized over playing jazz. He came of age in the ’80s, when jazz was in the midst of an upheaval. Some of the jazz musicians he idolized, like Herbie Hancock, had “plugged in” and were playing fusion; to the Young Lions, led by fellow New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the dogma was: That isn’t jazz.

“It was an interesting period,” Mr. Blanchard said. “It was almost like the jazz community felt gypped in a sense. So here we come—the next wave of guys who really want to play jazz. People were trying to hold on to us for dear life, you know? ‘No, no, no, don’t you go over there!’ Which was kind of weird, because we didn’t have any interest in doing that kind of stuff.”

Well, not right away. After about 15 years of subscribing to this orthodoxy, Mr. Blanchard says he felt stifled. Yet he didn’t feel confident enough to break away. He says he was plagued by self doubt and fears that he might hurt his career if he made the wrong choice. Ironically, it was Mr. Hancock, the onetime heretic, who told the younger musician to lighten up. “There are no bad choices in the world of art,” Mr. Blanchard remembers Mr. Hancock telling him. “There are just choices.”

This is one of the reasons Mr. Blanchard gave his new album its title. He has given himself permission to weave elements that he would have once considered impure—like electronics and funkier rhythms—into his music. Ironically, this has deepened the trumpeter’s art.

Jazz-influenced R&B singer Bilal is featured on several songs on his new record. Mr. Blanchard invited him up onstage to sing one of them at the Jazz Standard. The crowd loved him and demanded another. That’s the danger with vocalists, especially one as seductive as Bilal. Audiences are often happy to let them take the ball from the horn players and run with it.

Mr. Blanchard wasn’t about to let that happen. “You want to hear more?” he asked mischievously. “Buy the record. It comes out on Aug. 18.” Then he counted off another instrumental.

 

Blanchard Blows Up