Building from a start at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Blanchard was awarded a Grammy by age 22 as part of the celebrated group Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and within another 10 years, he added a half dozen albums, and began composing film scores for Spike Lee.
Blanchard took the next step in his illustrious career right here to St. Louis, where Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis have teamed up to co-commission an original jazz opera. With the world debut of "Champion" approaching next June, he stopped at Jazz at the Bistro to whet our collective appetites for his classic brand of jazz -- and to kick off the venue's 2012-13 subscription season.
After a brief and modest introduction, the quintet nonchalantly took the stage, with Blanchard lagging a moment behind. Without a word, Brice Winston opened the sound on a stylish black and gold tenor sax, and was soon joined by drums, bass and piano in an opening groove for Blanchard's "Time to Spare." Winston took the first solo which was filled with many scale-based riffs and built from broken phrases into a frenzy of fluttering fingers, defining the style of much of the night's set.
Blanchard's first solo added a bit of pep to the mood. He constantly paced back and forth as he played throughout the evening, rocking and dipping the bell of his trumpet as he played. As the solo intensified, he seemed to attack the kick drum with his most devastating riffs, leaning far enough in to get just a hint of bleed in his microphone, adding emphasis to the beat of his phrases and tempo. As a true veteran, he wasn't at all afraid to break from his flow and let the groove take lead for a moment before reestablishing his role at the forefront of the songs.
While the trumpet led the band, the dynamic of the quintet also highlighted Winston's saxophone, as he and Blanchard rarely played at the same time. As the set progressed, he would often step to the far side to yield the stage to Blanchard, and even left the stage entirely for the set's third song. Blanchard afforded him much of the same courtesy as he played. They concluded the set with "Wandering Wonder," one of Winston's compositions, during which he exhibited a deep connection with the music and sheer joy in sharing with the crowd.
The other members were far from inconsequential. Fabian Almazan, another accomplished bandleader in his own right, manned the keys, primarily on the Bistro's in-house baby grand, with a short excursion down the Rhodes organ. His solos often were accompanied by a breakdown segment, which allowed his gentle touch to spread softly across the room as he gracefully blended a more melodic style with the furious scales and chord riffs shared by the entire arrangement.
Kendrick Scott subtly perfected the drum rhythms for the set. Aside from a solo in the second song of the evening, he rarely drew the main focus on stage, but deliberately pecked away with a limitless array of intricate rhythms. His solo blended moments of finesse with an exposition of rhythm and meter, but it was during the breakdown grooves that he really shined, despite wearing a scowl-like expression when losing himself in the moment. The baby of the group was 20-year-old Joshua Crumbly on stand-up bass. A proficient young musician, Crumbly was never afforded a solo, yet he masterfully delivered an endless stream of walking bass lines accompanied by a wandering tongue in his cheek.
After a wordless set, Blanchard finally took the mic to give a final roll call, and a quick rundown of the set. With some humorous banter about the expectations of a St. Louis crowd, he delivered one last smile, and they closed with a very brief closing jam, well punctuated with a full band hit and bright riff from Blanchard's trademark trumpet.
Photos by Wil Wander.