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Skiing MMM…BOP: Terence Blanchard pays tribute to fellow composers who jazz up movie scores

By Marc Lee
Even if you don’t know jazz, you probably know Terence Blanchard. His fingerprints can be found all over Spike Lee’s films. There are some of his blues on Mo’ Better Blues, a few of his funky grooves in Jungle Fever and his full-blown majestic scores for Malcolm X, Clockers and Four Little Girls.

His cinematic work puts him in a class with very few jazz composers. He joins the company of Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones, not to mention the jazz-influenced scores of Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith.

The umbilical connection to those songwriters hasn’t escaped Mr. Blanchard. His recently released album, aptly titled Jazz in Film, pays tribute to them with condensed versions of their music, newly arranged for jazz septet and orchestra.

In the company of such virtuoso musicians as saxophonist Joe Henderson, trombonist Steve Turre and the late Kenny Kirkland on piano, Mr. Blanchard recalls great, flickering on-screen moments: Marlon Brando’s cry for Stella with Mr. North’s music for A Streetcar Named Desire, Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled Jake Gittes with Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Chinatown.

Speaking from Long Beach, Calif., where he’s attending a Spike Lee film retrospective before heading first to Houston and then to Sambuca Addison for two shows Thursday and two Friday, the trumpeter says his choices for the record came easy.

“I tried to find the most influential pieces,” he says. “Chinatown, Streetcar, Taxi Driver, The Man With the Golden Arm …. Those four really give you a sense of the dramatic nature of film.”

And some are just “beautiful tunes,” such as Andre Previn’s theme for The Subterraneans, Mr. Blanchard’s own score for Clockers, Duke Ellington’s bawdy arrangements for Anatomy of a Murder and his impressionistic doodlings for Dega’s Racing World, a documentary about painter Edgar Davis that never saw release.

In all these films, jazz paints the backdrop for gritty urban stories in which lust and violence collide. And somehow the score must implant the image of Tennessee William’s sultry New Orleans, or Anatomy’s strangely detached Thunder Bay, or Robert De Niro’s self-obsessed New York in moviegoers’ minds. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it – and that somebody doesn’t always get noticed.

“A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t notice your music in the film,’ ” says Mr. Blanchard. “The thing is, you’re not supposed to notice the music. The job is to enhance the film without people noticing.

“The music is supposed to enhance the emotions that happen. Like, there might not be much going on in a particular scene – the character may be experiencing something like anticipation – but the music will tell you what’s happening or even what’s going to happen later.”

Or even remind you what happened before. Let’s flash back to Mr. Blanchard’s beginnings.

He was born in that great cradle of jazz, New Orleans, about the same time as another famous trumpeter we know. In fact, he and Wynton Marsalis have known one another since about the sixth grade.

While Mr. Marsalis’ willingness to express his opinions has made him more of a household name, both were part of the original group of “young lions” that stormed out of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the early ’80s. And both breathed life into the traditional jazz renaissance of the last two decades.

Since he left Blakey’s band, Mr. Blanchard has delved not only into movies, but also has recorded several influential records, including interpretations of Stephen Sondheim’s works, the 1984 Grand Prix du Disque winner, New York Second Line, and 1996’s emotional and utterly Brazilian The Heart Speaks.

Recently he returned from England after putting the finishing touches on the score to Mr. Lee’s Summer of Sam, with the London Philharmonic.

“Those guys played great,” he says. In the score, “there’s some light moods and some dark ones. You know Spike – in all of his movies he has bits of humor.”

Film’s never been completely black and white.