If the tingly chill of this week’s weather is anything to go by, the wake-up call for the cold season has been issued. This year, its sound is that of the jazz trumpet. Or two jazz trumpets, even. Calling to each other across the time-span of this past week were the performances of Terence Blanchard (who graced Philly’s audience last Sunday at 7pm) and Hugh Masekela (last night at 8pm) at the Annenberg Center of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Nested in the heart of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, this venue is a crucial cultural linchpin between the University’s mostly Caucasian and Asian student population and the population of Philadelphia at large, with its strong African American component (not to mention the specific demographics of West Philadelphia per se). This past week the Annenberg centre was graced with an audience that was at least 60% African American, a demographic unusual for the small urban enclave of Penn’s University City, and crucial to its livelihood as part of the Philadelphian community at large.
Now to the music: revered jazz instrumentalist Terence Blanchard plays an impossibly soulful, consummate jazz trumpet, but he also he likes to take his trumpet to constantly new places: Spike Lee’s films (for which he writes and performs soundtracks ever since 1991) and experimentation with digital sound distortions are a couple of favoured destinations. For his Annenberg Centre concert last Sunday, Blanchard presented us with a classic jazz quartet and proceeded us to take us through a musical journey by way of a few familiar stops from his album ‘A Tale of God’s Will’—a re-elaboration of some of the music Blanchard wrote for Jones’ 4-hour long documentary about hurricane Katrina.
One specific strand of Blanchard’s talent threads his multifarious theatres of musical activity together: the artistry of budgeting his sound materials. A repeating bass pattern and harmonies, melodic snippets that are forever returning, and a resulting music that never bores. Part of the secret is the exquisite ear for timbre that Blanchard and his ensemble share. Hand-picked from the orchard of young jazz talent, bassist Joshua Crumbly (an eighteen-year old promise about to start a performance degree at Juilliard) was unafraid of using repetition to halting effect and doubled admirably as an electric bass guitarist. Drummer Kendrick Scott worked away from the skin of the drums with sticks and mallets to produce a constellation of sharp thuds, clicks and taps that slithered below the delicate melodic fabric spun by Blanchard’s and saxophonist Brice Winston.Paired with Winston, Blanchard was most reminiscent of his idol Miles Davis singing away with Coltrane or Adderley in his modal days, with those recurring handfuls of pitches and the streams of sweet parallel sixths. And there, pensively hunched over the piano’s middle register—from which he seldom budges—was Fabian Almazan, a gem of a pianist who turns those two octaves either side of middle C into a wondrous timbric and harmonic reservoir. The intimate quality of the jazz quartet timbre was also stretched by the digitally enhanced reverb Blanchard requested for his trumpet at crucial moments, hinting at a wide open soundscape beyond the stage.
Blanchard soulfully serenaded us its audience into Monday morning. At the other end of the working week we were greeted by Hugh Masekela’s South-African songs and dance-drenched rhythms. There is an unmistakeable element of high entertainment to Masekela that is missing from the deep concentration that Blanchard’s music seems to demand. But precisely in this sense, the two musicians’ artistries are uncannily complementary. Nor should Masekela’s cherish of entertainment be mistaken for a compensation for lack of musical ability: although Masekela is old enough to be Blanchard’s father, he is animated with electrifying musicianship. His trumpet style is riff-happy, prone to bright bursts of elided melody (like random cries of unrestrained glee). He also dances and sings as well and as often as he plays trumpet, and doubles as a percussionist too. Indeed, dancing was the first thing Masekela did when he came onstage, thus setting the tone for an evening that had the audience twitching to dance in their seats.
Masekela and his ensemble (percussions, drums, keyboard, bass and guitar) launched into a series of songs often introduced by a lengthy instrumental repetition of the A section (topped by Masekela’s trumpet improvisation) that eventually breaks out into a loud and joyous statement of the bridge, with Masekela singing the words and scat-riffing. His songs covered all topics from the endless tug-of-war between girl and boy to Johannesburg gold-miners cursing the trains that shuttle them into a life of nomadic and inhumanely hard labour. Combinations within the ensemble were explored, from the costumary round of solos—my personal favourite being that of Cameron John Ward’s electrified guitar—to call and responses between Masekela’s trumpet and the singing instrumentalists. Masekela spoke to the audience often and well, charming all Philadelphians into believing they were the only audience he would ever want to play for. He left its audience on a dizzying high, standing up, dancing on the spot and hand-clapping to their heart’s content.