Categories: Justin Duyao, THE BUZZ

THE BUZZ: Terence Blanchard’s “Absence” is an ambient, innovative triumph

Absence. Photo by Gordon Parks

by Justin Duyao
January 19, 2022

At its best, jazz is a kind of music that picks you up and carries you with it. If there is one thing Terence Blanchard does well with a trumpet in hand, it is that. Though his latest album, “Absence,” is something far above and beyond what some may recognize as traditional jazz; at its core, Blanchard’s lush and immersive jazz-rock project lands as an exquisitely crafted homage to Wayne Shorter and represents the best that contemporary jazz has to offer. 

A surprise around every corner, Blanchard’s effortlessly baffling talent keeps you constantly on your toes. But what makes his most recent studio release exciting is, arguably, the talent on stage with him.

As far as ambition is concerned, Blanchard’s 2021 release is characteristically his. As bold as it is controlled, “Absence” represents the culmination of several decades of performance at the highest level on Blanchard’s part. And yet, compositionally, the project that brings together both the prodigious E-Collective and the ever-adventurous Turtle Island Quartet embodies Blanchard’s desire to reach forward, to inspire future generations of jazz musicians and, importantly, to empower those alongside him. 

David “DJ” Ginyard, for example — The E-Collective’s bassist — wrote the title piece, “Absence,” as well as a track titled “Envisioned Reflections,” both cornerstone compositions for the album. The Collective’s guitarist, Charles Altura, also wrote the track “Dark Horse,” an elegiac slow burn that crystalizes the album’s mellow undertones. 

Terence Blanchard. Photo by Gordon Parks

There’s no doubt that Blanchard’s towering presence is a forceful one on stage. But if one thing is clear, at this moment in his career, it is that Blanchard’s priority is to usher in a new generation of jazz innovators.

“Terence has always pushed young musicians to expand outside of their instruments, through composing,” Ginyard told Bass Magazine. “He’s a true gift to the world.”

This attitude also shone through the way Blanchard paid homage to the album’s dedicatee, Wayne Shorter. Though it may have been easy for his heartfelt appreciation for Shorter to have translated on stage as nostalgic, even reminiscent of the golden age of jazz — instead, Blanchard took the burning spirit of Shorter’s legacy and ran with it. At the beating heart of the colorful and shapeshifting set, Blanchard centers a track titled “I Dare You,” inspired by a phrase he’d heard Shorter use to describe the essence of jazz. 

“So why not dare to be creative and pay homage at the same time,” Blanchard said about the album in 2021. 

And creatively daring it certainly was. “Absence” is not only carefully textured, skillful, energetic — it’s also a hell of a time. And, looking back, the latter quality resonates because of Blanchard’s commitment to innovation. It’s plain to see: Each musician on stage continues to surprise the other. 

In fact, the best moments of the performance crackled into being when the group leaned into the electrifying swell of their soundscape. Several times, the rhythm section clicked into place with the Turtle Island Quartet, the two groups grinning at each other across the stage, and sat back and reveled as pianist Taylor Eigsti erupted into a solo. Altura, several times, caused Blanchard to double-take. Ahead of the Turtle Island’s Quartet spellbinding piece, “The Second Wave” — composed by violinist David Balakrishnan — Blanchard told the audience: “This is going to change your life.” Unsurprisingly, it did.

Both as a composer and a performer, Terence Blanchar’s award-winning work has pressed jazz forward, cementing it as a critical facet of American heritage and stretching it as far as it’ll stretch. Few musicians have remained as committed to exploring the boundlessness of jazz as Blanchard.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Blanchar’s recent San Diego performance and discussion in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., produced in partnership with ArtPower at UC San Diego.

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