Blanchard Quintet performs emotional Katrina requiem

October 6, 2010

Blanchard Quintet performs emotional Katrina requiem

By Pheralyn Dove
Philadelphia Tribune Correspondent

Professionally attired in tailored suits, dress shirts and neckties, the Terence Blanchard Quintet riveted from the stage of the Zellerbach Theater Sunday night at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center. From the first note to the last, they unleashed a raging river of passion.

The Blanchard Quintet anointed the audience with a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit, by sharing music from “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” which is the soundtrack from Spike Lee’s HBO documentary that garnered Blanchard a 2007 Grammy Award. The amazing outpouring paid homage and respect to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Region who were so profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina. The themes in the music for “A Tale of God’s Will” came directly from Lee’s documentary.

Blanchard, one of New Orleans’ proudest sons, was joined by Brice Winston on tenor saxophone; Fabian Almazan on piano; the 18-year old-wunderkind and Julliard student, Joshua Crumbly on acoustic and electric bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. The evening began with an enlightening pre-show chat with Blanchard and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, who served between 1994 and 2002. Morial and Blanchard both hail from the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood in New Orleans that was created in the 1950s for middle-class African Americans, during an era when Jim Crow segregation laws were still entrenched in the South.

Shortly after opening the set with his telling composition, “Levees,” Blanchard said, “I’m blessed to be playing with these guys. Playing this music brings us back to a point in our lives when we were going through a lot of emotions.” ‘Emotional’ is just one word to sum up the tone of Sunday night’s concert. The music was also reverent, visceral, and extremely seductive.

“I have a very deep spiritual connection to New Orleans. The music Terence Blanchard and his quintet created for this piece is deeply emotionally resonant,” said poet and performance artist Stephanie Renee. “I walked away from the concert feeling some of the essence of the City of New Orleans in the music. It was great being in an audience where the people were just awe struck.”

Individually and collectively, the musicians elevated to a transcendental state, in each case surpassing their own formidable virtuosity. On “Levees,” Blanchard’s trumpet circled, spiraled upward and soared, while Winston’s tenor sang, cried out and screamed for mercy. Fabian Almazan’s piano solos on “Wading Through,” another Blanchard composition, exhibited a brilliance and clarity on the instrument that very few pianists are able to achieve. While he was technically proficient for sure, Almazan just had so much feeling; he displayed a knowing depth and intensity that was matched and complemented by all of the artists in this profound expression.

The musicians in Blanchard’s quintet are all composers and leaders, with far flung musical projects and accomplishments. Tenor man Winston contributed “In Time of Need,” to the “Tale of God’s Will.” Having spent most of his adult life in New Orleans, Winston was among the thousands displaced by the ravaging Katrina. In addition to playing his trumpet on Winston’s tune, Blanchard sang, moaned, hummed and appeared to be in a meditative trance. “The most amazing thing was how this music all came together,” Blanchard said.

Drummer Kendrick Scott’s composition, “Mantra,” on which Crumbly played an impressive solo on the electric bass, before giving way to Scott’s powerful voicing, was well received by the audience, as well as the other offerings, including “Ashe,” written by Aaron Parks. During the solos on “Funeral Dirge,” another tune that Blanchard wrote, you could hear his trumpet’s mournful strains of “Taps,” and haunting references to “Amazing Grace.”

“This was very personal for me,” Blanchard said. “It was really hard to deal with all the dead bodies around the City of New Orleans — dead bodies laid in the street with no one there to help them. There were so many heroes as a result of Katrina — so many unsung heroes.”

During his introduction, Blanchard referred to Scott as one of the most creative drummers he had ever worked with. Indeed, Scott’s lyrical and dynamic musicality was evident throughout the evening. Backstage after the concert, Scott said, “Music is all about the nuance of it and what we want to project. We want to create sound to touch someone. I always want to create music for a purpose and with ‘A Tale of God’s Will,’ it was even more important to convey those feelings.”