Gotham’s JVC Jazz Festival capped an opening week of events with a retrospective of Terence Blanchard’s music for the films of influential writer-director Spike Lee. Collaborators for over a decade, Blanchard has complimented Lee’s films with soulful energy and spirited jazz motifs. Mr. Lee offered little more than brief opening comments, assisted by Mr. Blanchard at the piano, demonstrating how a basic melody is honed to fit the mood and texture of a film. It was Blanchard’s clear bright open toned trumpet, however, that clearly dominated the concert.
Blanchard’s infectious theme from “Bamboozled,” Lee’s minstrel satire on black imagery, kicked off the concert, followed by a soulful piano solo of “Shadowland,” written and played with flashy bravura by Bruce Hornsby.
Guest Cassandra Wilson vamped with “Harlem Blues” (penned by Cynda Williams) from “Mo’ Better Blues.” Ms. Wilson’s uncluttered phrasing and blend of intimacy and warmth elevate her to an exalted level on the roster of today’s jazz singers.
A mournful cello intro segued to a loping blues motif that set the scene for Lee’s compelling doc on the racially motivated 1963 Birmingham church bombing, “Four Little Girls.” Blanchard set a pulsating and smoldering mood for “25th Hour,” with its savage and ramblin’ street themes.
Hornsby returned with a slickly polished perf of “Love Me Still,” written by Hornsby in collaboration with Chaka Khan. The tune comes from “Clockers,” the urban crime drama about Manhattan drug dealers.
Selections from “Jungle Fever,” with Blanchard’s mournful opening comments, turned out to be an evening high point. Hornsby brought considerable fire to Stevie Wonder’s “Gotta Have You,” while Raul Midon’s romping guitar chords and vocally compelling trumpet mimicry added a spunky drive to Wonder’s spirited “Make Sure You’re Sure.”
Closer was four movements and a video eulogy from the critically acclaimed 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.” Blanchard’s rich sweeping suite boasts a poetic urgency. It has the dark, brooding restlessness one might associate with Leonard Bernstein’s compelling themes for “On the Waterfront.” Blanchard produces a lingering, lonesome howl that carries haunting imagery. His spare — very nearly austere –melodicism echoes with a kind of sobering vision that clearly defines the subject matter. There’s a sublime truth in his writing, and in his playing.
The concert was complimented by the visual assist of freeze frame scenes gathered from Lee’s films. The program, which made its debut at London’s Barbican Center in April, will travel to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in July, followed by a perf at the Hollywood Bowl.