Friday, June 24, 2005

Terence Blanchard, Jazz Winnipeg Festival, June 24

Terence Blanchard is a fantastic jazz trumpeter who I have been dying to see for years. He actually played the Jazz Winnipeg Festival a couple of times, but I missed both shows. This time, however, I made sure to buy my tickets as soon as they went on sale. I ended up in the sixth row, with a superb view.

Opening the show was the Roy/ Atkinsion Trio, featuring local virtouso guitarist Larry Roy and drummer Alvin Atkinson. Well-known Montreal bassist Michel Donato completed the trio.

Marilyn Lerner and Larry Roy

I was absolutely stunned by the drumming wizardry of Alvin Atkinson, Jr. They said he was a local drummer, but I had never heard of him, and yet, here he was, putting on the best display of drumming from a local player that I have ever seen, and second only to Branford Marsalis' drummer, Jeff "Tain" Watts, in terms of all the drummers I've seen. Later on, they mentioned that he has been in town only since last year and is a visiting jazz drum professor at the U of Manitoba. Well, no wonder!

Alvin Atkinson

Larry Roy, was the MC, and once again, proved why he is such a huge talent. He has an identifiable sound, which I won't try to describe, but I will say that to have your own sound as an instrumentalist is something very special, indeed. Larry could play anywhere in the world, he is that good. Watching him perform, you see that he is really a conduit for music. Notes fly off his fingers, causing him to contort as he channels a flow of glorious sounds. Michel Donata is one of the top bass players in all of Canada and has been repeatedly recognized as such. Jazz fans know who he is. He looked like he just woke up, with "bed hair", which I thought was a bit amusing. Still, he contributed without being overly flashy.

Now, for the headliner - Terence Blanchard. Blanchard a student of Ellis Marsalis, was the replacement for Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, in 1983, so he has already had a lengthy career in the spotlight. He's also known for contributing to film soundtracks like Mo'Better Blues and Malcolm X. Of course, he is also a teacher and mentor to up and coming jazz musicians. Blanchard opened the set with a an atmospheric piece that reminded me of that quiet yet unforgettable sounds that Miles Davis used to conjour up.

What was especially appealing about the Blanchard show was how it pushed the boundaries of jazz with some quirky electronic sounds, and African guitarist Lionel Loueke and his peculiar playing and the overall vibe of the group who tried to occaisionally stretch out the concept of jazz.

Apparently, some members of the audience walked out, but for the rest of us, we were treated to a spellbinding performance. Everything Blanchard played was stellar. His sidemen were all very adept players. His tenor saxophonist, Brice Winston, blew me away and was head and shoulders beyond just about every sax player I have seen.

Brice Winston

From the Winnipeg Free Press, by Chris Smith.
IT was a different Terence Blanchard who took the Jazz Winnipeg Festival stage last night, and he didn't sit well with everyone.

The trumpeter, who has performed here twice before, played as well as ever, but his new project and CD, Flow, includes electronics that longtime fans aren't used to.

He and his top-notch band lost a dozen or more people from the audience after a half-hour or so, but he easily held the rest of the crowd because underlying the electric Blanchard are the New Orleans jazz roots that he has carried through his career with Art Blakey, his duo with Donald Harrison, film scores for Spike Lee and straight-ahead jazz.

He opened his concert, the first jazz fest concert held at Manitoba Theatre Centre, with an almost ethereal solo before the band joined in (as well as the security alarm from the Lexus on display in the lobby).

Blanchard may be the draw, but he is one of those musicians who attracts bright players and this lineup fits the bill. Tenor saxophonist Brice Winston is a great player who commands the stage when Blanchard moves aside to give him the spotlight. He has a dexterity and tone that complement even someone as accomplished as Blanchard.

Pianist Aaron Parks looks too young to play as well as he does, but as good a soloist as he is, he has that much-needed skill as a feeling accompanist not only to Blanchard, but the other band members as well.

Guitarist Lionel Loueke, from Brunei, was the most visible (make that audible) manifestation of the newer Blanchard sound. The trumpeter credited him with broadening his horizons with the use of electronic aids, but that sound at times conjured up a '70s Miles Davis vibe that didn't really hold its own.

That said, Blanchard remains a wonderful soloist who soars on a ballad and flies through up tempo numbers.

The opening act of guitarist Larry Roy, drummer Alvin Atkinson Jr. and Montreal bassist Michel Donato performed some tasty material, but was hampered by a bad sound mix that had the bass too low and drums too high.

What should have been Atkinson's brush work sounding like a whisper while Donato soloed, for example, sounded like a rasping and forced you to strain to hear the bass.

Fortunately, the sound was pristine for the Blanchard set.

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