He works to raise hope, and homes, in New Orleans

Boston Globe, August 24, 2007

Days before the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, the righteous anger animates Terence Blanchard just as it did in the storm’s wake. The distinguished New Orleanian trumpeter, who remembers being evacuated by rowboat from the Ninth Ward as a child during 1965’s Hurricane Betsy, came home after Katrina to find his mother’s neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain leveled. Images of Blanchard escorting his mother to her first sight of the void that was her house, and his own candor negotiating the outrage and sadness, are emotional highlights of Spike Lee’s HBO documentary, “When the Levees Broke.”

Now Blanchard continues the catharsis and consciousness-raising with a majestic album, “A Tale of God’s Will,” just out on Blue Note. With a full orchestra backing Blanchard’s quintet, the disc is a funeral suite laced with worship, perseverance, and transcendence; both drawing on and deviating from classic New Orleans jazz, it’s one of the richest artistic responses to Katrina yet released. It’s also the primary material for Blanchard’s current quintet tour, which visits Regattabar tonight.

Those who follow Blanchard’s work will not be surprised by the album’s cinematic texture: The finely paced exposition and the lush but tempered orchestration reflect Blanchard’s long experience writing scores for Lee’s films. The songs ease poignantly from wide-angle evocations of city, earth, water, to the close-up intimacy of lives facing crisis and recovery. The pervasive melancholy that Blanchard’s horn signals as it sinews through the arrangements is never treacly or overwrought, but simply a matter of fact.

“I was trying to give a personal account of what happened in New Orleans after the hurricane,” says Blanchard, who has spent much of his career based in New York and Los Angeles but now lives in the Uptown section of his native city. Like many Crescent City natives, he’s come out of the storm recommitted to the city and invested in its recovery. In a sense, this makes him an optimist, but the anger is never far away.

“Spiritually and emotionally, we are doing the best we can,” he says. “A lot of people here contain a very vibrant New Orleans spirit. But we’re being tested. The development we’re seeing is on a personal level, by individual citizens. It’s a testament to the will and the strength of this culture. But at the same time we elected our leaders to protect us.”

And the leaders failed: “On the face of it, there’s the devastation and lack of rebuilding today. But the other part is, how did we get here? How did we allow the levees to break, the wetlands to dry up?” He blames political leaders from the national level down, but also finds fault in the city’s complacency. The album’s opening invocation, “Ghosts of Congo Square,” a quintessentially New Orleans melange of African percussion, gospel incantation, and plaintive jazz trumpet, is a call to attention from the mists of history.

“`Ghosts of Congo Square’ is an artistic statement of how we’ve been receiving warnings from our ancestors for years and years that have gone unheeded,” Blanchard says. He points out the many brushes New Orleans had with natural disasters from which lessons could have been drawn. Now, he says, the storm has added a whole new crop of ghosts to those who already haunt the city. He evokes elderly people left to die in the floodwaters, children who will never get treatment for the trauma of destruction and evacuation.

But “Congo Square” – and by extension the album – is also a statement of the artist’s responsibility. The actual square was where slaves and later the free Creole population gathered for leisure. “It was a place of worship, a place of gathering, and it’s considered the birthplace of jazz,” Blanchard says. By calling on its memory, he acknowledges music’s duty to mobilize, and power to heal, the tribulations of life and history.

“Some of us in this art world were thrust into the political arena without wanting to go there,” Blanchard says of the storm’s impact. He calls himself middle class, a man of faith, basically conservative. But he’s aghast at what he sees as a political culture built on lies, and he sees how luxury condos are under construction on the West Bank of the Mississippi, which did not flood, while in the city proper the housing projects are still closed and their residents remain refugees.

The greatest pain remains the one closest to home: Blanchard’s mother’s experience, only partially shown in Lee’s film. “I got my mom out to LA and got her an apartment,” he says of the time after the storm. “And I was crying when I took her to Target and she was shopping for everything, like a college student. Everything: housewares, bedsheets, knives and forks, towels, clothes, everything. She had to buy it all. And I’m saying to myself, what the hell is this? And the thing about it is that we were the lucky ones.”