Rage and hope in a Katrina requiem

October 6, 2010

Rage and hope in a Katrina requiem

By A.D. Amorosi

For The Philadelphia Inquirer

Composer/trumpeter Terence Blanchard and company hit the Zellerbach Theatre on Sunday to perform A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina). By the title, you might think this work was a kindly, earnest prayer for his hometown of New Orleans, a city that suffered ravages and indignities yet maintained its joyful hope.

Instead, Blanchard and band unleashed a devastatingly intimate and dramatic song cycle from a man well-versed in the cinematic language of passionate revelation of the personal.

Blanchard has long been Spike Lee's musical partner. He scored Lee's 2006 HBO documentary When the Levees Broke. The epic sorrow and outrage of Blanchard's music formed the basis of what became the quintet's statement, the somber yet brightly cosmopolitan Tale of God's Will, made into a 2007 album that won a Grammy the next year.

Film fans know, too, that Blanchard scored director Kasi Lemmons' 1997 film Eve's Bayou with richly evocative blues, gospel-bop, and dirty jazz indigenous to the Crescent City.

Sunday at Zellerbach, the musicians enlisted all those styles without overplaying. This was not ham-fisted or pleading Creole jazz. Pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist Joshua Crumbly, manically inventive and intuitive drummer Kendrick Scott, and tuneful saxophonist Brice Winston squared off against ghosts forlorn and friendly. Blanchard led the charge - keening and ringing with a silvery, Hubbard-like belt, giving long, languid howls empowered by hate and humor.

Throughout the program, the chatty Blanchard reminded his audience of an old saying: "God don't give you more than you can handle," hardheaded wisdom that became a joyous subtext to the sorrow.

Blanchard's God-hailing hope and man-damning rage started quiet and blue with "Levees." After clipping a lick from Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So," Blanchard achieved a slow-building disgust. "Wading Through" got an angular, Bill Evans-ish turn from the Cuban-born Almazan and disquieting cymbal work from Scott.

Intricate nuance was everything. "In Time of Need," written by Winston, started off as a cool bop duel between trumpet and sax, only to find Winston busting out with tightly coiled force. "Funeral Dirge" was a hypnotic, raga-like gem of thrummed bass and sad, simple trumpet lines, and "Mantra," written by Scott, was an elegiac, complex centerpiece for all players, with more subtle twists than the hurricane itself.