Although there’s no denying that Terence Blanchard has “gone Hollywood” — no less than six pics bearing his soundtrack work will hit theaters this summer — the trumpeter hasn’t lost touch with the traditional jazz world that nurtured him more than 15 years ago.
On the first night of his six-night stint at the Village Vanguard, the New Orleans native dipped deep into his bag of tricks, steering his combo through a surprisingly bristly set of material that confirmed his status as a less-uptight alternative to fellow traveler Wynton Marsalis.
The sextet opened with a long stroll — breaking out into a full-out run now and then — through Alex North’s theme from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Retrofitted with post-bop sax runs and several decidedly physical solos from Blanchard, the 1951 score took on modern complexity even as it retained the evocative otherworldliness of the original.
Blanchard, whose playing can often be measured, even standoffish, seemed intent on pulling out all the stops for this particular audience, something he managed to do most effectively on the intricate-but-breezy “If I Could.” On that lengthy, winding piece, he engaged the stellar tenor player Brice Winston in some snappy call-and-response and gave pianist Ed Simon enough leeway to transform the mood into that of a classical recital with an angular, elegant solo.
The leader engaged his keyboardist — a frequent collaborator — even more fully on “Simplamente Simon,” a showcase number that unfolded into a compelling ensemble piece leavened with niblets of tropicalia and full-on swing. Blanchard, who deserves praise for letting his sidemen share the spotlight with more enthusiasm than most of his peers, nevertheless maintained a subtle hold on the reins.
When he chose to pull tighter, as on the languid ballad “I Thought About You,” his pensive personality came to the fore; when he chose to hold back, his influence still percolated noticeably beneath the surface — and that’s the mark of a first-rate band leader.