Magnetic Musicianship

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Terrence Blanchard brings jazz to opera

By Valerie Gladstone

Terrence Blanchard takes big risks. Ever since his early years with drummer Art Blakeley's legendary Jazz Messengers, the 51-year -old trumpeter has stepped out to try new things, winning five Grammy's along the way, most recently for the heartrending song cycle A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), the soundtrack for Spike Lee's film When the Levees Broke. He wrote his next film score for Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee pilots, following up with the music for the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2012. His first opera, Champion: an Opera in Jazz, based on the story of the gay boxing champion Emile Griffith, will have its premiere at Opera Theater of St. Louis June 15-30. "I learn something new each time I start an unfamiliar project," he says on a recent call from Chicago. "A lot of reassessing and reevaluating goes on."

Blanchard credits his years with Blakeley with giving him the confidence to lead such a musically adventurous life. He follows his mentor's example in many ways. "Art never gave us direction," he explains, "nor do I my musicians. It helped us develop ? you make better music that way. You broaden the net." For all his high-profile projects, he still likes nothing better than jamming with his group, which he will do at the Jazz Standard May 29-June 2. During the gig, he'll be introducing tunes from his newest album, Magnetic, due out from Blue Note Records on May 28. Written by him and his musicians, the original numbers range from bop to electronic. As a convert to Buddhism, he says, "My music reflects my spirituality and beliefs. Whatever I'm dealing with in my life comes out in the music."

By showing a willingness to change, adapt and grow, Blanchard developed the skills to write music for all kinds of works, though none have been more different nor more challenging than an opera. "I had to write for a range of voices rather than instruments," he says, "and consider different registers and focus on melody." But Emile Griffith's story grabbed him emotionally, making it easier for him to write. Griffith was enjoying a successful career as a boxer when he unintentionally killed Benny Paret in the ring, ostensibly because Paret called him a derogatory word for gay. What especially got to Blanchard was Griffith saying later in life, "I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. I love a man and to so many people this is an unforgiveable sin." This kind of compassion and sense of humanity infuses Blanchard's music and makes listening to him such a rich experience.

Terence Blanchard plays at Jazz Standard May 29 through June 2.

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