Blanchard Premieres New, Poignant Commission in Cleveland

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Terence Blanchard performs a new work in the Maltz Performing Arts Center at the Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland on Nov. 4.

(Photo: Jeff Forman)

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard packed the house Nov. 4 when he staged the world premiere of his stirring “OUR VOICES: DEMOCRACY RE:visited” in the Maltz Performing Arts Center at Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland.

The space Blanchard commandeered once was a hallowed hall in a storied synagogue, recently converted to a secular incubator for the arts. The room in which the New Orleans-based trumpeter and his E-Collective performed Sunday has been transformed into an acoustically pristine space, sonically perfect no matter the program.

A sellout audience—the hall was configured for 980 people in concert mode—reveled in the elegant surroundings and the wildly diverse presentation. Sponsored by Cuyahoga Community College—Blanchard is this year’s artist-in-residence for the Tri-C JazzFest, the organization that commissioned this new work—the concert was free, but tickets had to be reserved.

While the event mixed media and music styles, the message was straightforward: The Voting Rights Act of 1965, although weakened in 2013, still aims to ensure participation in American democracy and must be engaged by casting a vote. Blanchard’s new piece celebrates the landmark legislation, and the timing of the premiere, two days before midterm elections, couldn’t have been more germane. As Blanchard, an early voter, said in a telephone interview before the debut, “There’s no justification in complaining, if you’re not part of the process.”

The trumpeter snowballed: “It’s very important for the community to come together and understand how important the voting rights act is.”

Besides the unveiling of Blanchard’s dense meditation on the legislation President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law, the show presented his music from Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a winsome rendition of Donald Byrd’s “Cristo Redentor,” a call to exercise the franchise that featured Tri-C freshman and hip-hop talent Patrick Warner, and a finale showcasing singer Quiana Lynell.

The presentation, with vintage black-and-white photos depicting protest marches and police brutality, as well as color images from a 2015 Barack Obama speech in Selma, Alabama, and the fatal 2017 white-supremacist conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, was complex. The concert began with the choir’s “We Win,” setting an optimistic tone for the evening.

At times, nearly 100 people filled the stage. Besides Blanchard’s combo, there was the Spirit of the Groove Gospel Choir, a 40-strong amalgam of Cleveland’s church and jazz communities; 25 string and wind instruments from CityMusic Cleveland, conducted by Matthew Jaroszewicz, assistant conductor of the Canton Symphony, resplendent in tux and tails; and a group of local high school students who, under trumpeter Dominick Farinacci’s direction, served up a loose rendition of the Byrd classic.

With gravity, Blanchard offered a stunning solo on “Amazing Grace.” He spanned humility and exaltation, using slight echo and delay to drive home and refresh the tune’s spirituality. It was a perfect way to usher in “OUR VOICES,” Blanchard’s singular blend of music and poetry. Sparked by E-Collective guitarist Charles Altura, with lyrics by local poets RA Washington and Orlando Watson, and eerie, swirling choir ululations, the 15-minute piece powerfully blended anger and exultation.

The drama intensified with “Blood And Soil,” a selection from BlackKkKlansman. As images from the film played on a screen at the top of the scrim, E-Collective and CityMusic Cleveland joined in a dissonant melody that both echoed and denigrated “I Wish I Was In Dixie,” a tune associated with the Confederacy and minstrelsy. Even though the selection was brief, it was barbed and disquieting.

The show concluded with assertions of faith and strength as vocalist Lynell took the stage, electrifying the audience, her range spanning plush contralto to soprano. Hers is a commanding stage presence, to boot. Backed by E-Collective and Spirit of the Groove, Blanchard drove Joshuah Campbell’s modern gospel tune, “Sing Out, March On,” hard, coming in for a softer landing on Alina Engibaryan’s “We Are.”

The applause was ringing. DB



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