Jazzman Blanchard offers musical prayer for New Orleans

Associated Press

NEW YORK &#8212 With more than 40 movie and television scores to his credit, Terence Blanchard is adept at composing the right music to fit a particular scene. But when the noted jazz trumpeter returned to New Orleans for the first time after Hurricane Katrina, he couldn’t imagine any music that would express the overwhelming devastation. In the most musical of American cities, he only heard the sounds of silence.

Just before the hurricane struck, Blanchard evacuated his wife and daughters to Atlanta, and then to his apartment in Los Angeles. He lost contact for nearly two weeks with his mother who had left for Mississippi, but she eventually joined him in Los Angeles while he completed the score for Spike Lee’s “Inside Man.”

But Blanchard, who has written the music for nearly all of Lee’s films since 1990’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” returned to New Orleans in December 2005 when the director enlisted him to write the music for his HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.”

Blanchard found himself in an unaccustomed role in front of the camera when his mother, Wilhelmina, agreed to let Lee film her as she made her initial visit to survey the wreckage to her home in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood.

In one of the four-hour documentary’s most moving scenes, Blanchard is seen gently consoling his weeping mother by telling her: “This is all stuff that can be rebuilt.” But standing amid the debris in her damp living room, she responds despairingly, “Lord have mercy . that’s easier said than done.”

“When I first tried to hear music for this particular story, I heard nothing because that was the dominant feeling I had when I went to my mother’s house. There was no life in that neighborhood, and I’ll never forget that,” said Blanchard, in a telephone interview from his home in New Orleans’ Garden District.

“And that was a bizarre feeling to have in that neighborhood which was so full of life,” he recalled. “There was no music, man. My first reaction was how do you even put this into a musical context?”

But as Blanchard began sifting through the many visual images and interviews gathered by Lee, some musical themes began to take shape, which he used for his evocative and haunting score for the 2006 documentary.

Blanchard then decided he needed to expand on the score to make his own cathartic statement about Katrina. He felt the need to work with “a bigger palette of colors” by using a full orchestra.

In August, shortly before Katrina’s second anniversary, the 45-year-old Blanchard released the 13-track CD, “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” featuring his regular quintet and the 40-piece Northwest Sinfonia, in which he applies all his storytelling skills by combining cinematic orchestral composition, jazz improvisation and virtuosic trumpet playing.

“Part of it is a means for me to just purge and deal with it in my own personal way,” Blanchard said. “Part of it is a means for me to help others who haven’t been here to experience the pain we all feel being here trying to rebuild this city.”

Blanchard, who first rose to prominence when he replaced Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1980s, will be giving his first live performance of “Requiem” at this month’s Monterey Jazz Festival, where he is the artist-in-residence. In November, he will perform the work at New Orleans’ Dixon Hall with the Louisiana Philharmonic

In the opening track, “Ghost of Congo Square,” with its drumbeats evoking the New Orleans square considered the birthplace of jazz where slaves gathered to perform their otherwise-forbidden African songs and dances – Blanchard and his bandmates repeatedly chant: “This is a tale of God’s will.”

“Requiem” prominently features rearranged versions of four themes Blanchard used in his documentary score: “Levees,” “Wading Through,” “The Water” and “Funeral Dirge.”

Blanchard said “Funeral Dirge,” which begins with Scott playing a slow marching-band snare drum figure, is about all the dead bodies shown in television footage in neighborhoods he grew up in. “I felt those people . deserved a proper burial.”